Matt's Articles

The Continuous Improvement Mindsets

Depending on where you look, the term “mindset” can mean many different things. The definition that best suits the way I typically use the term comes from the May 1st 2016 blog in Psychology Today.com. “A mindset is a belief that orients the way we handle situations- the way we sort out what is going on and what we should do.” In our work, situations arise everyday that need to be sorted out. The unexpected problem, the ongoing challenge, and the difficulty working with different personalities on our team or in the organization. Our beliefs will frame the way we go about handling those situations and will ultimately determine whether or not we can resolve that situation. For this reason, mindset is a pylon beneath our foundation for the CI Framework. The shared mindsets of the organization will determine our ability to successfully change and implement process improvement.


The activity to change a mindset or establish a mindset is similar to that of changing or establishing a culture within an organization. In this newsletter I will simply explain the mindsets that I have found to be important. I should also stress that these are only established through demonstration by leadership at all levels over time and through repetition. 


There are four mindsets that are crucial to continuous improvement:

  1. Our purpose is to deliver value, which is established by the customer.
  2. Waste is discovered through rigorous retrospective of our work in the context of customer value.
  3. Waste is minimized by adhering to standard practices and continuously improving.
  4. Improvement of the standard requires measurement and visualization of the work.  

Our purpose is to deliver value, which is established by the customer.

For most of you reading this newsletter this statement is well tread. Lean practitioners, quality managers, and most modern leaders all know that being successful in business is all about the value that we provide to the customer. The modern customer has many options and can be fickle at times. If we are not laser focused on delivering value, then everything falls apart. The challenge lies not in understanding this in concept but in living it in practice. 


We are constantly distracted from our focus on customer value. It is all too easy to get caught up in making the end of quarter number, being right about the functionality of the product, doing something new and innovative, establishing our authority over others, or over the activities under our role. The larger the organization the bigger these distractions become. The customer does not care about your promotion, your patent, or the compliance activities that you need to perform. They simply want a problem solved. When we remind ourselves of this we can quickly start to evaluate and see wasteful activities and practices within the organization. All the stuff we do that does not have a thing to do with solving the customer’s problem is wasteful. When an entire organization shares this mindset, process improvement results.


Waste is discovered through rigorous retrospective of our work in the context of value.

The first mindset allows us to see waste, the second is the recognition that we will not discover the waste unless we stop and evaluate the work that we do. It is often easy for me to see problems within my clients’ operations because I am not emotionally connected to getting today’s work out the door. I can ask questions that no one else has the time to ask. It is easiest to describe this mindset by clearly stating what it is and is not:

  • It is not simply working harder. It is making time to evaluate what is value added and focus on optimizing that value. 
  • It is not asking people to use more common sense. It is studying why mistakes happen and addressing the root causes to find better ways of working.
  • It is not hiring smarter people. It is the recognition that all people have the ability to elevate their thinking and solve problems when we give them the time and the skills to do so.

Without recognition that retrospective is the only way to discover improvement, there will be no process improvement. 


Waste is minimized by adhering to the standard practices and continuously improving them.

I had a boss that would often and firmly tell me, “Matt, stop reinventing the wheel.” We like to do things “our way.” When we invent things it is ours and that makes us feel good. Adopting someone else’s way of performing a task is less compelling. To adopt a standard requires practice which is often a mind numbing set of repetitions. All of this makes adopting a standard difficult, but the fact remains that once we have a good solution to a problem, we should reuse that standard solution as many times as possible. As a result, we get every last ounce of value from what we have learned. This is the path to sustained process improvement and high levels of business performance. 


Contrary to what you might think, continuous improvement is not achieved purely through constant innovation. Continuous improvement is achieved through discovery of a great new standard way of doing something and then sticking to it. Yes, McDonald’s has made all sorts of innovations in its many years of existence, but the standard solution that they created has, at its core, remained the same for ~70 years. Standardization is how we get the return on the retrospective time we invest to discover process improvements.


Improvement of standard practices requires measurement and visualization of work.

All too often I hear, “We don’t have time to record what happened.” or “We cannot measure that.” It is true that recording information is not free, it takes time. It is also true that it is not a customer value add. But, measurement removes the opinion and much of the bias from our problem solving efforts. Visualization allows a larger number of people to understand the work and the gaps in handoff or decision making that create many of the problems that we face on a day to day basis. The organization must internally value the insights that measurement and visualization bring to our work. Without documentation of how work is done, without measurement of our work output, and without visualization of the work and work output there can be no process improvement.


Mindsets are the underpinning to our process improvement efforts. They guide the questions we ask and the prioritization of our time. With the right mindsets we can just about establish our foundation of the CI Framework, but there is one more piece. We all need a push. We all need a purpose. The organization must have motivation to continuously improve. I will write more about this topic next month.

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