The image of a tornado is what many associate with improvement. An unpredictable, powerful, force that sweeps away the wood in its path. It certainly transforms – but it leaves a trail of destruction and disappointment in its wake. It does not discriminate between the green wood and the dead wood.
A whirlwind is created by a combination of powerful forces – but the trigger that unleashes the beast is innocuous. The classic ‘butterfly wing effect’. A spark that creates an inferno.
This is not the safest way to achieve significant and sustained improvement. A transformation tornado is a blunt and destructive tool. All it can hope to achieve is to clear the way for something more elegant. Improvement Science.
We need to build the capability for improvement progressively and to build it effective, efficient, strong, reliable, and resilient. In a word – trustworthy. We need a durable structure.
But what sort of structure? A tower from whose lofty penthouse we can peer far into the distance? A bridge between the past and the future? A house with foundations, walls and a roof? Do these man-made edifices meet our criteria? Well partly.
Let us see what nature suggests. What are the naturally durable designs?
Suppose we have a bag of dry sand – an unstructured mix of individual grains – and that each grain represents an improvement idea.
Suppose we have a specific issue that we would like to improve – a Niggle.
Let us try dropping the Improvement Sand on the Niggle – not in a great big reactive dollop – but in a proactive, exploratory bit-at-a-time way. What shape emerges?
The shape of the pyramid is determined by two factors: how sticky the sand is and how fast we pour it.
What we want is a tall pyramid – one whose sturdy pinnacle gives us the capability to see far and to do much.
The stickier the sand the steeper the sides of our pyramid. The faster we pour the quicker we get the height we need. But there is a limit. If we pour too quickly we create instability – we create avalanches.
So we need to give the sand time to settle into its stable configuration; time for it to trickle to where it feels most comfortable.
And, in translating this metaphor to building improvement capability in system we could suggest that the ‘stickiness’ factor is how well ideas hang together and how well individuals get on with each other and how well they share ideas and learning. How cohesive our people are. Distrust and conflict represent repulsive forces. Repulsion creates a large, wide, flat structure – stable maybe but incapable of vision and improvement. That is not what we need
So when developing a strategy for building improvement capability we build small pyramids where the niggles point to. Over time they will merge and bigger pyramids will appear and merge – until we achieve the height. Then was have a stable and capable improvement structure. One that we can use and we can trust.
Just from sprinkling Improvement Science Sand on our Niggles.