Beyond Continual Improvement

Anyone building a product, leading a team, or running an organization needs to listen to a talk by Dr. Ackoff titled "Beyond Continual Improvement". Dr. Ackoff touches on continual improvement, concepts of quality, and implications of systems thinking that are commonly overlooked. As long as we ignore the points described in this lecture, our efforts at improving our systems and organizations are doomed to failure.

All you need to listen to this lecture is fifteen minutes - a small price to pay in order to receive some of Dr. Ackoff's wisdom. I've also shared my personal notes from listening to the lecture below.

My Notes

Here are the notes I collected from listening to the lecture

  • Continual improvement is considered A Good Thing, but quality and improvement programs are often considered failures by the managers who introduced them
  • Definition of quality: meeting or exceeding the expectations of the customer or consumer
    • A definition we should all adopt!
    • If customer expectations are not met, the program is a failure, no matter what the expert thinks
  • Primary reason for the failures [his hypothesis]: they have not been embedded in systems thinking
  • What is a system?
    • System: a whole with independent parts that can have an effect on the overall system behavior or properties
    • The parts are interdependent - one part of the system needs another part in order to produce an effect
    • No part of the system can independently affect the system
  • Systems implications that people overlook:
    • The defining properties of a system are properties of the whole which none of its parts have
    • When a system is taken apart it loses its essential properties
    • A system is not the sum of the behavior of its parts, it is a product of their interactions
    • The performance of a system depends on how the parts fit, not how they act taken separately
    • When you get rid of something you don’t want (remove a defect), you are not guaranteed to have it replaced with what you do what
  • Conclusions that Dr. Ackoff draws from these implications:
    • If you are running an improvement program which is looking at improvements of the parts taken separately, you can be certain that the performance of the whole will not be improved
    • Finding and removing defects is not a way to improve the overall quality or performance of a system
    • Determining what you want means you need to take the systems and redesign it, not for the future, but for right now
    • To do that, answer the question: What would you do right now if you could do whatever you wanted to?
    • If you don’t know what you would do if you could do whatever you wanted, how can you know what you can do under constraints?
    • People never ask themselves this question
  • Basic principle: an improvement program must be directed at what you want, not at what you don’t want
  • Architects understand systems thinking
    • Client comes in, gives them a list of all the properties of the house (2 car garage, made out of redwood, one story, huge kitchen, etc.)
    • The architect creates an overall design for the house, then he creates designs for the rooms to fit into the house - whole before parts
  • Continuous improvement isn’t nearly as important as discontinuous improvement
    • Creativity is a discontinuity
    • A creative act breaks with the chain that has come before it.
  • You never become a leader by continuous improvement
    • You only become a leader by leapfrogging those that are ahead of you
  • We have to have the right idea of quality
    • There’s a difference between doing things right and doing the right things
    • Quality ought to contain the notion of value, not merely efficiency
  • Closing line:
    • Until managers take into account the systemic nature of their organizations, most of their efforts to improve their performance are doomed to failure

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