The numerically gifted amongst you might be scratching your heads at this point. At face value, one hundred times one percent adds up to exactly the same as one times one hundred percent. And from a purely mathematical perspective, of course, you’re right…
But when you think about things from the perspective of lasting impact (or with a view to driving continuous improvement), many small enhancements typically contribute much more than a single large one.
It’s tempting, of course, to try to identify a single dramatic initiative and hang your hat on it. But large, dramatic, step-function changes are also hard to pull off. They require a level of commitment and change across many parts of the organisation.
Sometimes, if dramatic change is required there’s no option but to just “go for it”. But no organisation should take on one of these Big Hairy Audacious Goals without their eyes wide open for the potential consequences.
Balancing risk and reward
They have many potential points of failure. They tend to carry high risks, as well as high potential rewards. But perhaps most important of all, even if they are achieved, they leave no automatic legacy of further incremental improvement.
These dramatic initiatives can turn into terrible ego traps. Reputations can be made or lost as a result of their outcomes. Perhaps worst of all, they can suck resources away from other programmes that could use those same resources more effectively.
Benefits of continuous improvement
Continuous improvement programmes, on the other hand, are far less obviously dramatic. They appeal less to the hero than to the pragmatist. But they have the benefit of other equally important and often more lasting upsides.
Once you get into a habit of continuous improvement, it’s hard to stop - and why would you want to? Once an organisation gets into the habit of systematically eliminating wasted effort and value-less activities, it tends to be self-perpetuating.
Instead of high-stakes singular initiatives - often dictated from on-high - every member of the organisation is constructively engaged in identifying and implementing the incremental changes that together add up to significant and self-amplifying changes.
Creating lasting commitment
Of course, these mini-initiatives need to be aligned to a bigger sense of purpose, and to one or a handful of clearly articulated strategic priorities. Of course they require a greater sense of commitment on the part of everyone involved.
But if properly framed, they can unleash unstoppable creativity on an organisation-wide basis. They can uncover and address opportunities that would in all likelihood be missed by the senior management team on their own.
It doesn't have to be either/or...
Of course, the choice doesn’t have to be either/or. It’s perfectly possible to combine carefully chosen breakthrough initiatives with a systematic atmosphere of continuous incremental improvement. In fact, that combination probably represents the best of all possible worlds.
But if all you’re relying on is a few high stakes initiatives, and if you haven’t cultivated a culture of driving and devolving a spirit of continuous improvement, you shouldn’t be too surprised if some of those big bets don’t pay off.