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improvement, leadership, lean, management, transformation, Uncategorized

Fighting Organizational Complacency

Applying lean requires a significant shift in thinking for most of us.  One aspect that I have found to be particularly difficult for people is the notion that anything less than perfection is acceptable. There seems to be a natural tendency to accept that things are good enough – and when people in the organization reach this point, complacency sets in and the improvement process begins to die.

One of the warning signs of organizational complacency is a passive resistance that shows up in statements like, “we can always improve, but . . . ”  The “but” is the tip off that a person does not truly feel things can get much better.

Believing Your Own Press

Over and over again, I have seen periods of significant improvement followed by a return to mediocrity fueled by a belief that the most significant problems facing the organization have been solved and further improvement is not necessary.  In one instance, I worked with an organization that, over a period of several years, achieved marked improvement in product quality while increasing inventory turnover fivefold.  As the company became recognized as the industry leader, however, arrogance began to creep into its culture – which was not surprising given the remarkable turnaround that occurred during the previous period.

As is often the case, the arrogance was accompanied by complacency, and signified that people were satisfied with the current level of performance.  Within two years, the company’s improvement efforts stagnated as inventory levels increased, quality declined, and profitability suffered.  The CEO who led the company during the period of growth (and was since promoted to a higher position within the parent company) returned to the organization to re-establish a continual improvement mindset.  After several years, humility and a drive for perfection began to return to the culture.

Some of the articles on the problems faced by Toyota a few years back point to organizational complacency as a potential cause.  Although much of the accelerator issue was eventually blamed on driver error, the company’s rise to number one in such a short period of time, along with the significant increase in stock price, caused a loss of focus and made it difficult to maintain the motivation to improve.  Recognizing this as a problem, Akio Toyoda has said on several occasions that the company’s future success requires a return to the basics – something that, at least from the outside, it seems to be working.

Perfection is the Only Acceptable Result

People in companies that appear to sustain the process over long periods of time tend to exhibit an obsession with improvement.  The drive to improve is integrated to the point where any resistance to change is quickly identified and repressed to prevent it from creeping into the culture.

As written in a previous blog (link), the notion behind the use of the term countermeasures rather than solutions is meant to keep anyone from thinking that there is an end to improvement efforts.  When the goal is perfection, there can be no such thing as a “solution” to a problem.

Continually striving for perfection can be tiring, so it is important to celebrate successes along the way.  While recognizing achievements, however, it is important that everyone understand that achieving and sustaining success requires never letting go of the idea that perfection is the only acceptable result for the company.  And a culture that continually strives for perfection has no room for the word, “but.”


About Gregg Stocker

Gregg Stocker is a lean advisor for Hess Corporation. He possesses over 20 years experience in a variety of disciplines including operations, manufacturing, human resources, quality, and strategic planning, and has worked in manufacturing, service, and oil & gas industries. He has extensive international experience, including successfully leading an $65 million business in The Netherlands. He authored the book, “Avoiding the Corporate Death Spiral: Recognizing & Eliminating the Signs of Decline,” (Quality Press, 2006) and was a contributing author to "The Lean Handbook," (Quality Press, 2012). Gregg is a frequent speaker and recognized expert in business and performance improvement having been interviewed on television, radio, and in a number of newspaper and magazine articles including The New York Times, Washington Post, BusinessWeek, and InformationWeek. Gregg has implemented change in organizations ranging in size from $10 million to more than $100 billion. He is a team-oriented leader who achieves results by improving teamwork, focus, and communication throughout the organization.


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