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Why Pursue Perfection

Why pursue perfection? And how do we even know what perfection looks like?

Hi, I’m Nate Barber. Welcome to the 8th video in our 10-part series celebrating Opgrade’s 10th anniversary. Thanks for watching, and thanks for celebrating with us!

Pursuing perfection. It’s the 5th of Lean’s 5 principles. In previous videos, we discussed the preceding 4 principles, which are 1) Defining Value, 2) Mapping the Value Stream, 3) Establishing Flow (where you can), and 4) Implementing Pull (where you can’t flow). Check out these videos on our website, or on the Opgrade YouTube channel.

But for today’s video, let’s move on to Lean Principle #5, seeking perfection, and let’s ask the honest question, why would we want to pursue perfection … isn’t that just setting ourselves up for failure?

An important mantra in Lean is “Respect for People,” so the pursuit of perfection is not, and cannot be about setting anyone up for failure. We want to make our processes work harder for our people. We don’t want to make our people to work harder in our processes. And that’s one of the paradoxes in any system, including our organizations. If you only focus on improving results, you rarely get improved results, at least not sustainably improved results. If instead you focus on improving the process that produces the results, you can now get those improved and enduring results you’ve been looking for.

Therefore, in Lean we don’t expect perfection, we just want everyone to understand that, like John Kotter said, “transformation is a process, not an event.” This concept of “pursuing perfection” may be better framed as “What’s next?” What’s next in our process of improvement? What else can we make better? I hope you understand that there will always be something else we can make better and that we should make it better.

Jim Collins writes in his book, Good to Great, “Good is the enemy of great … Few people attain great lives, in large part because it is just so easy to settle for a good life.” This is the essence of the 5th Lean principle. Where are you settling? Don’t just settle for good in your organization. Don’t just settle for good in any part of life, for that matter! Let’s choose to be great because it’s worth it!

Also, don’t fall into the trap that greatness is simply the result of luck, or happenstance. Jim Collins wrote another book, Great by Choice, and I fully agree with his assertion in that book that “Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness, it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice and discipline.”

Conscious choice and discipline. Wow. Greatness doesn’t sound very glamorous, does it? Probably because it isn’t. Just like with results, so it is with greatness. If you focus on achieving the greatness, you rarely attain greatness. If instead you apply a disciplined focus to the conscious choices, and keep on keepin’ on, you might just find yourself on the threshold of greatness.

But what is greatness? What is perfection? Well, I suppose that differs from person to person, company to company, doesn’t it? What is your definition of greatness? What is your organization’s definition? Do you have one? If not, that’s probably part of the problem. In the words of Zig Ziglar, “If you aim at nothing, you’ll hit it every time.”

If you’re leading an organization and you don’t have a clear vision for what greatness looks like, clearly articulating an exciting vision of greatness may need to be the thing you start working on now. In my view, that’s probably the most important thing a leader can do. A great leader sees a mountain-top in the distance and says, “Hey, wouldn’t it be great to be on that mountain-top way over there? I think we should go there. C’mon, I’ll show the way!”

Whatever your mountaintop is, your team needs to know where you’re going together, so they can be excited about the trek. Having done my share of backpacking, I can assure you that the idea of hiking with a 45-pound backpack is far more alluring if I know we’re going somewhere great. And once you hit the peak in front of you, the natural question is, “What’s next?” Which if you remember, is really what this principle of Pursue Perfection is all about.

So why not simply make this 5th principle “What’s next?” instead of “Pursue Perfection?” Well, I think there are two reasons. Firstly, perfection must be the benchmark for our activities because it represents the process flow that creates pure value to the customer. If something doesn’t add value, it’s a form of waste, and we should work to eliminate it. Secondly, continuous improvement, by definition, never ends. Since we know we’ll never be perfect, clearly its pursuit will never end. Unfortunately ,the answer to “What’s next?” could too easily be, “Let’s coast for a while. We’re pretty good.” Remember, that’s the enemy of greatness.

If you have a good vision of greatness, of perfection, and it’s one that you’ve communicated well, what then is the best way to go about this pursuit of perfection? I’d say it all starts with entitlement.

Now don’t get bent out of shape, here. Entitlement is a word that gets groups of people all hot and bothered because they don’t think some people deserve what they think they’re entitled to. That’s not the kind of entitlement we’re talking about here. What I’m talking about is process entitlement, which is the best performance a process has ever achieved.

Think about it this way. Are you a golfer? If you are, I would bet a considerable amount of money that you know the best score you’ve ever shot on a golf course. That score is your process entitlement. You are entitled to that score, because you’ve done it, which means you can do it again. Which is probably what you’re trying to do every time you go golfing. Or maybe you’re not a golfer. Maybe you’ve been bowling. No matter how avid a bowler you are, I’d also bet considerable sums that you know your best bowling score, or at least some approximation. That’s your bowling entitlement.

Now, whether you’re a golfer, or a bowler, or both, I would also bet you know several other things. I bet you know the golf course or bowling alley at which you achieved your best score. I also bet you know who you were with, what clubs or ball you used, and the circumstances that got you there. You may even know what you were wearing. Why would we remember all that? It’s simple. It’s because we want to do it again. We want our best score to become our normal score, and we want a new best score.

And why wouldn’t you? Why wouldn’t your organization? What would it take make your organization’s best day your organization’s every day? You’ve done it before, find ways to do it again. And how do you know you’ve done it again? Are you measuring the progress you’re making? If not, how do you know you’re even making progress?

Going back to the golf and bowling analogy, how would you get better at those sports? Your answer would probably involve some coaching, and lots of practice where you run little tests to see if you understand the factors that made you successful. And so it is with the pursuit of perfection. In Lean we call this the Deming Cycle, or PDCA, for Plan, Do, Check, Act. It’s just the scientific method. Plan a test, do the test, check the results, act on the results. If the results are good, keep what you did in the test. If the results are bad, don’t continue to do what you did in the test.

PDCA. And when you’re done, PDCA again. And again. And again, and again, and again. PDCA, PDCA, PDCA, PDCA. Don’t stop when you stub your toes, and you’re going to stub your toes. Don’t stop when the going gets tough. Don’t stop until you’re on the mountaintop with your team. When you’re perfect, which is of course when you realize you’ve just raised the bar on the definition of perfect.

That’s it for the pursuit of perfection. We’ve now covered all five of the Lean Principles, so next week we’ll move on and cover 5S, which is perhaps the most fundamental tool in Lean. Until then, thanks for watching, and thanks for celebrating with us.

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