Are we killing organizations with continuous improvement?

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

The phrase “continuous improvement” is a pretty common one among agile and lean communities and the tech industry in general. Yet, it depends quite a lot on one’s interpretation of what constitutes an “improvement”. I have started to suspect that in many cases, we are mistaking our societal obsession with anything that betters productivity and efficiency as synonymous with improvement. Similar to how we are learning that GDP is not a great measure of success, focusing only on what makes us deliver value faster is not a good measure for the success of an organization — at least on its own.

Our need for control

Organizations, like people, are complex. With complexity comes inherent uncertainty and this makes us feel uncomfortable. There is a saying that people prefer the certainty of misery over the misery of uncertainty — and this explains why we still go to great lengths to manage and control the complex.

We spend countless hours focused on better planning, on standardizing, and eliminating inconsistencies and anything we believe is standing in our way to becoming faster, more productive and more predictable. Naturally this leads to measuring as much as we can because of the widely held belief that “if you can’t measure it you can’t manage it.”, an attitude that is reinforced by the current trend to be data-driven.

The problem with this, especially in complex systems, is that:

Not everything that can be measured is valuable and not everything that is valuable can be measured.

By reducing the complex to numbers and data points, we risk grossly oversimplifying the state of things. Moreover, the quest for ever increasing efficiency within organizations is killing the very thing that enables them to be successful: resilience.

Resilience

Resilient systems have a few specific characteristics. Key among them though is an abundance of diversity and redundancy. Variety and the non-essential provides room for maneuver and different perspective, enabling a system to respond, adapt and evolve — to be agile.

Yet just like how our insatiable appetite for a growth economy is destroying the resilience of our planet’s eco-systems, climate and our own social well-being, diversity and redundancy are typically the very things in organizations, that in our own insecurity, we erode in our war on “waste”.

You get what you optimize for

We are very much fixated on optimizing around productivity and (usually) quality. We fine tune as much as we can to ensure only that which remains provides direct value to the business or customer. We maximize capacity to ensure there is no idle time, we require “multitasking” as a necessary skill in job advertisements, we plan more after failure in the hopes of “doing it once, doing it right” next time.

Yet, in our efforts to do more we funnily enough tend to get less done. Even if we do become more productive, more often than not, we get caught in the ‘efficiency trap’. The biggest loser in all of this, is our own mental health and wellbeing, which ironically are critical for productivity and quality of work. In the age of knowledge work, burnout, stress, and lack of empathy all effect our performance and by extension the organization’s performance.

In the end, the issue here is that organizations should not only be optimizing for productivity, but also for it’s ability to recover and repair itself (ideally without needing to remind it’s employee’s to take holidays so that they can “recharge” — if they need a holiday to recover, the organization is very likely optimizing exclusively for productivity.)

The importance of feedback loops and diversity

Typically resilience tends to get worse when feedback loops deteriorate or don’t even exist. In an organization increased layers of hierarchy, organizational divisions, and other forms of unclear or weak communication channels/ practices are common culprits. Even someone’s inability to listen can doom a social system that is reliant on hierarchy for change. As the saying goes:

“A manager who doesn’t listen, will soon be surrounded by people with nothing to say.”

In our culture of continuous improvement, for example, we can begin to shift towards standardization (away from diversity) because of a fear of conflict, lack of alignment and what that would mean for productivity. We might start to hire people that are more like us, require that teams work in the same way or be measured in the same way, or to implement generalized career paths and expectations. However, by doing so we are making feedback harder to give, receive and/or act on. Parts of the system may start to become more volatile, unpredictable and brittle as a result. By standardizing we lose the possibility for innovation, cross-pollination of ideas, evolution.

On the positive side, balance can be restored so long as feedback loops are present, and not delayed or warped. Sense-making, reflecting and establishing meaning to experience is a critically part of any system to keep it in check, but as mentioned above its important that this doesn’t only occur in regards to productivity.

Where to from here?

To be clear, I am not advocating for no planning or no measuring or saying that we shouldn’t care about efficiency or productivity. But as with most things in life, balance is critical. I do wonder whether in our attempts to tame and mechanize the complex and organic we are going overboard, inadvertently homogenizing and optimizing ourselves into a corner — shutting out the possibility to be agile, to be resilient. With such an approach it’s no wonder that the larger and more complex an organization becomes the more standardization and control mechanisms (a.k.a bureaucracy) tend to be put in place .

Perhaps the first step we can take is to understand that continuous improvement is not a relentless pursuit solely towards continuously delivering value. It must also take into account improving indicators of organizational resilience, like diversity and redundancy. In the end, not all “waste” is bad, just like not all bacteria is bad, and we should understand that eliminating it indiscriminately can leave us more susceptible to ailments. In other words, its ok and sometimes necessary to be a bit inefficient if it means we can be resilient.

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An Agile Coach and dad who writes from time to time about his thoughts and experiences of work and life.

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Austin Mackesy-Buckley

Austin Mackesy-Buckley

An Agile Coach and dad who writes from time to time about his thoughts and experiences of work and life.

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