Continuous Improvement & Risk

I witnessed an interesting pattern today while running Boris Gloger’s “The Ball Game” exercise with a team. The basic idea is to iterate a team activity, stopping to make improvements each iteration. The idea is to practice and measure the impact of continuous improvement on team performance of a task. In general, the team did as you might expect: the first iteration things were pretty rough and their performance wasn’t very good. In subsequent iterations, their performance continued to steadily improve until they were nearly perfect at peforming the task.

Here is what I think I saw happening: with each iteration the group became more stable. They eliminated variation until they reached a plateau in their performance. They found stability, but they also reached a plateau where they were not making significant additional gains with each iteration. It felt very much like they were playing it safe. They didn’t want to do anyting to risk their “score” each iteration of the game.

Now I knew something that they didn’t – as facilitator I knew about other rather creative ways of configuring the group that would have given them a quantum leap in performance. There was an opportunity to take a chance and rethink the problem and make some stunning gains in performance – but at a very real risk to their short term performance. What I saw was a group that was tweaking the small stuff and missing the opportunity to change the big things that would make dramatic differences performance. It felt like there were competing pressures that were impeding the teams ability to see opportunities for performance improvements. Now of course this was just an exercise, so there really was no risk if they didn’t perform well – so any pressure they were putting on themselves was basically self imposed. And that may have been enough to blind them from seeing the opportunity for greater change.

How often do we do this on our own teams? We make improvements that fine tune the status-quo until it feels reasonably stable – and then we stop. I know it happens to me. Add a little pressure from management, and I very quickly can’t discern the forest from the trees any longer. There may be opportunities for change that offer dramatic improvements, but I will very likely not even consider them if it means potentially risking my team’s established performance.

I think this is all the more reason to focus on making the team feel “safe”. As managers we sometimes need to protect our teams external pressures so that they can keep relaxed and flexible – open minded enough to see all the possible alternatives.

Or I could be nuts. You decide.

2 Responses to Continuous Improvement & Risk

  1. Great observation. Making significant changes in a process that works pretty well is very hard. I don’t think that being “safe” is a sufficient condition for getting it done. People will still resist even if they are safe. I think this is a good argument for investing, from time to time, in a parallel, even duplicate effort that does the same thing differently.

  2. Cara says:

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