After winning at Wimbledon, Roger Federer is once again the number one tennis player in the world. Now that he has made it to the top, can he expect to take it easy and hope to remain there? Will his practice sessions and workouts be easier now that he has only to sustain the level of performance that got him to number one? And since he has obviously mastered the sport, he is no longer in need of a coach, right?
When talking about competing in a highly competitive environment like tennis, the obvious answer to these questions is, “no.” Yet in a highly competitive business environment, it is fairly common to let up when performance improves as if the gains will hold and things will continue to advance without the type of focus it took to get there. In some organizations, the effort actually loses support because of the feeling that further improvement is not worth the investment.
Once You think You’ve Won, You Lost
People in organizations where lean thinking has taken hold understand that continual improvement requires continual effort. This means never letting up on the drive to develop people and assure continued learning. As with an athlete mastering a sport, there is no such thing as maintaining a certain level of performance. There is either improvement or deterioration – and as you get better, improvement becomes more difficult to maintain.
It’s interesting that people use the term “continuous improvement” while deep down believing that there is a point where things are good enough and not worth the effort to continue. I referred to this in an earlier post as the we-can-always-improve-but syndrome. If we’re striving for perfection, improvement is always needed. Changes in people, technology, customer tastes, and many other aspects of the environment invalidate any notion of sustaining the gains. The only way to sustain a given level of performance is to continue to improve.
Performance Improves . . . And It’s Fun
Those who buy into the continual improvement philosophy find working in a lean thinking environment very satisfying. They understand the link between their efforts and the company’s performance and are energized by the ability to participate in improving processes. For those in leadership positions, however, it can be exhausting to continually fight against the barriers that interfere with improvement. And since these barriers naturally occur within organizations, the effort to remove them will never end.
Just as Roger Federer needs to continue to improve to remain number one, an organization must continually push harder, learn faster, and get stronger in order to remain relevant. Failing to do this can pretty much guarantee membership in the growing group of companies that, at one time appeared invincible, but have since disappeared because of arrogance or apathy toward improvement.