World Class Improvement

Monday, November 10, 2014

figure_weight_lift_success_150_wht_12334Improvement Science is exactly like a sport: it requires training and practice to do well.

Elite athletes do not just turn up and try hard … they have invested thousands of hours of blood, sweat and tears to even be eligible to turn up.

And their preparation is not random or haphazard … it is structured and scientific.  Sport is a science.

So it is well worth using this sporting metaphor to outline some critical-to-success factors … because the statistics on improvement projects is not good.

It is said that over 70% of improvement projects fail to achieve their goals.

figure_weight_lift_fail_anim_150_wht_12338That is a shocking statistic. It is like saying 70% of runners who start a race do not finish!

And in sport if you try something that you are not ready for then you can seriously damage your health. So just turning up and trying hard is not enough. In can actually be counter-productive!

Common sense tells us that those fail to complete the course were not well enough prepared to undertake the challenge.  We know that only one person can win a race … but everyone else could finish it.  And to start and finish a tough race is a major achievement for each participant.

It is actually their primary goal.

Being good enough to when we need to is the actual objective;  being the best-on-the-day is a bonus. Not winning is not a failure. Not finishing is.


So how does an Improvement Scientist prepare for the improvement challenge?

First, we need enough intrinsic motivation to get out of bed and to invest the required time and effort.  We must have enough passion to get started and to keep going.  We must be disappointed enough with past failures to commit to preventing future ones.  We must be angry enough with the present problems to take action … not on the people … but on the problem. We must be fearful enough of the future consequences of inaction to force us to act. And we need to be excited enough by the prospect of success to reach out for it.

Second, we need some technical training.  How to improve the behaviour and performance of  a complex adaptive system is not obvious. If it were we would all know how to do it. Many of the most effective designs appear counter-intuitive at first sight.  Many of our present assumptions and beliefs are actually a barrier to change.  So we need help and guidance in identifying what assumptions we need to unlearn.

stick_woman_toe_touch_150_wht_12023Third, We need to practice what we have learned until it becomes second-nature, and almost effortless. Deceptively easy to the untrained eye.  And we develop our capability incrementally by taking on challenges of graded difficulty. Each new challenge is a bit of a stretch, and we build on what we have achieved already.  There are no short cuts or quick fixes if we want to be capable and confident at taking on BIG improvement challenges.


And we need a coach as well as a trainer.

The role of a trainer is to teach us technical skills and to develop our physical strength, stamina and resilience.

The role of the coach is to help us develop our emotional stamina and resilience.  We need to learn to manage our minds as much as our muscles. We all harbour self-defeating attitudes, beliefs and behaviours. Bad habits that trip us up and cause us to slip, fall and bruise our egos and confidence.

The psychological development is actually more important than the physical … because if is our self-defeating “can’t do” and “yes but” inner voices that sap our intrinsic motivation and prevent us crawling out of bed and getting started.

bicycle_racer_150_wht_5606The UK Cycling Team that won multiple goal medals in the 2012 Olympics did not just train hard and have the latest and best equipment. They also had the support of a very special type of coach. Dr Steve Peters … who showed them how to manage their inner Chimp … and how to develop their mental strength in synergy with their technical ability. The result was a multi-gold medal winning engine.

And we can all benefit from this wisdom just by reading The Chimp Paradox by Dr Steve Peters.


So when we take on a difficult improvement challenge, one that many have tried and failed to overcome, and if we want world class performance as the outcome … then we need to learn the hard-won lessons of the extreme athletes … and we need to model their behaviour.

Because that is what it takes to become an Improvement Science Practitioner.

Our goal is to finish each improvement race that we start … to deliver a significant and sustained improvement.  We do not need to be perfect or the best … we just need to start and finish the race.