Priceless Small Improvements

Twenty-two years ago, I served on a strategic planning committee with 5 or 6 other up-and-coming young engineers. We carefully assessed the situation and told our leader that the breakthrough strategy he wanted was not attainable because we were not even able to do our fundamentals well. Our recommendation was to first master the basics and build from there.

The boss’ view was that the organization needed a big disruptive strategy, while our view was that the organization needed to improve a little bit every day. Walk before you run. Climb one stair step at a time versus leaping from the lower landing to the upper landing. That is what we saw as practical and achievable, and therefore motivated to make happen. It was a failed message.

Likewise in higher education, university presidents look for a major disruptive strategy while ignoring the possibility that small daily improvements can rapidly accumulate and deliver outstanding results. A change that is not big and disruptive, in response to extant threats, is seen as not worth pursuing. Small daily improvements is not seen as “game-changing.” Home runs are beautiful, base hits are ugly.

What the leaders of our learning institutions fail to grasp is that small improvements made every day by everyone results in individual and organizational learning. Big changes made once in a while by a few people results in only individual learning for a few people and zero organizational learning. The former respects people, the latter does not.

If you’re not trained in how to make small improvements every day, to eliminate waste, unevenness, and unreasonableness in non-zero-sum ways, then the only thing you know how to do is either nothing or seek some kind of big disruptive change. The former is rapid-cycle experimentation (using the scientific method) that helps you keep up with the times, while the latter is slow-cycle change that helps you stay behind the times.

Stasis, followed by heroic disruptive change is seen as virtuous, while continuous small changes is seen as inferior and deficient. The reality is that all those little improvement are priceless.

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