Ever since the classic Lean Thinking book1 talked about perfection as a principle in 1996, I have wondered what this really meant.
What is perfection? Here, the Shingo approach helps us with a definition: “Perfection is an aspiration not likely to be achieved but the pursuit of which creates a mindset and culture of continuous improvement. The realization of what is possible is only limited by the paradigms through which we see and understand the world.”
In my own mind this chimes well with my own experiences since the early 1990s with a simple tool like value stream mapping and engaging teams to want to implement and embed future state maps. What I found is that simply telling or even facilitating a team to develop a future state map rarely resulted in a sustainable change. Why? I believe this was because many in the team did not understand why they were doing this, what they were trying to achieve and most importantly that the future state that they were defining was even possible.
So in my own experience, the way we at S A Partners found to overcome this was to get the team to stretch their minds to an impossible dream – to a blue-sky vision or ideal state. In doing so, they could unshackle themselves with the day-to-day constraints of the real world, the ‘why-that-won’t-work’ thought process. Then we encouraged them to step back from this ideal and consider what they think is possible, although a long way off. After this we asked them to consider what they think is possible within a defined time period. By doing this, the resultant future state is not only real, but it is their reality and is very likely to be both possible and sustainable. Oh, and in most cases much further along than the classic but impossible future state map they might have developed without thinking about an ideal state or perfection
So why does this matter? Well, what this thought process establishes is that by seeking perfection we can create a faster and more sustainable journey that is developed by and not for our people. I have also found that it is exactly this thought process that is required by organizations challenging for the Shingo Prize. It is at the heart of one of the most difficult challenges faced by leaders. The challenge is how you move from the principles to a set of ideal behaviours that can then be deployed correctly across the organisation, implemented through effective enabling systems (such as strategy deployment and continuous improvement) and reviewed and developed through systems (such as leader standard work) and key behavioural indicators before being further developed through systems (such as learning and development).
None of this is easy, but my belief is that although “Seek Perfection” is one of the most difficult to understand of the Shingo Guiding Principles™, it is ultimately one of the most important in moving beyond simple tools to creating a true Enterprise Excellence culture.
1 Lean Thinking, James Womack & Daniel Jones, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1996