Continuous Improvement or Eating an Elephant?

When describing an ominous task you must undertake, you may have heard the question, “How do you eat an elephant?” and the answer, “One bite BassAdrian-smallat a time.” You may have also heard about the never-ending process of continuous improvement as it pertains to your work processes. With both these tasks in mind, I ask, would you rather eat an elephant or work on continuous improvement?

I know some people who definitely would prefer eating an elephant—with or without barbeque sauce—to working on continuous improvement! Why? Because they think that working on continuous improvement is more difficult. Let’s look at these two tasks in terms of the commitment to complete large-scope tasks and how both require a systems approach to accomplish.

The scope of continuous improvement is large because it is a long-term effort to make improvements to organizational systems and processes.  The goal of continuous improvement is to provide better products or services to customers (both internal and external).

The scope of an elephant is big and gray. It is complex. It may not be obvious where to begin eating and it can’t be done very quickly. What’s worse, the closer you get to the elephant, the larger it seems to be. For some, the goal of eating an elephant may be just to avoid working on continuous improvement.

Because both challenges are large and complex and long-term, both require commitment and a systems perspective to accomplish.

Starting with the elephant—we can all probably agree that it would require a long-term commitment to eat an elephant—this is not to be accomplished in one lunch, unless you are feeding an army, but either way it likely takes some planning. While you might be able to tackle it without a systems approach, I would think that looking at the whole elephant would be of great assistance in planning your knife and fork strategy.

When it comes to continuous improvement, it is critical to make a commitment to the long-term endeavor. We live in a very fast-paced environment where a company can start up and fail in a matter of months, not just years. So “long-term” is not an easy sell. To be long-term, the continuous improvement process needs to become a part of “the way we do business” instead of something extra (like adding barbeque sauce to the elephant). This is not easy to accomplish, but organizations that are the most successful at long-term continuous improvement, work to make it a part of what they do day to day.

Like taking on any large endeavor, it’s best to use a systems approach for accomplishing the task. What, you might ask, is a systems approach?

Peter Senge (The Fifth Discipline, 1990) introduced the term Systems Thinking in describing the concept that an organization and all of its parts are an interrelated system. Using a systems approach to continuous improvement means we would look at our organization as a whole instead of looking at the departments or units and processes as separate parts. Changes in one area may affect another (for better or worse). A systems approach to continuous improvement requires that we understand the system we work in—the inputs, suppliers, processes, outputs, customers, and hopefully the feedback loop in the system which allows us to reflect and study changes or improvements to the system.

Similarly, a systems approach to eating an elephant would require an understanding of the entire elephant and the process to be used in consuming it.

The classic example of an organization that does not use a systems approach is when someone in one department sees that he or she could save the company $100 for every widget produced, but the manager refuses to make the improvement, as it would cost that department $30 per widget. Sounds like a no-brainer to implement that change. But if the department gets penalized for spending the extra money, then no one will implement the change. A systems approach to continuous improvement would encourage the communication and holistic view to see that the net gain to the company would be $70 per widget, and of course they would implement the change.

Is it looking like eating the elephant is easier? Before you decide, think about what you will do once you complete the first elephant, and there is another waiting to be eaten.  Continuous improvement begins to look preferable.

The critical questions to ask are what are the benefits to working on continuous improvement in your organization and what are the benefits of eating an elephant?

Most likely by now you have decided that there are no benefits to eating an elephant, except that the barbeque sauce is tasty and goes well with elephant. But the benefits to continuous improvement can be enormous—savings to the bottom line, savings to the customer, a better working environment, a culture of learning, and more satisfaction in work.  When looked at in this way, I would choose working on continuous improvement; which would you choose?

Adrian Bass is director of Capital Quality

Initiative at Lansing Community College. CQI

provides learning opportunities in quality

management and continuous improvement to

individuals and organizations in the area.








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