ABP: Always Be Perfect(ing)

stones-2997726_1920Today’s post on lean has to do with a topic that’s often misunderstood: perfection.

The lean enterprise should pursue perfection. It should continuously improve and work to make each processes leaner along the way.

Perfection is a tricky goal, however, as it is a continuously variable goal and one that, by definition, you will never achieve. Yet it’s the pursuit of the goal of perfection that produces excellence.

The trap here, however, is to not demand perfection instantly (or at any point). First, that’s not possible. Second, the lean concept of pursuing perfection requires small, iterative, incremental steps towards its attainment.

Thus, the pursuit of perfection should never be mistaken for perfectionism (which inevitably results in procrastination).

The pursuit of perfection leads to strategic vision and goals. These are then cascaded throughout the organization. Yet it’s within each individual performance area of the business that the major work of perfection actually is achieved.

From the organizational level, the method for achieving perfection in a lean organization is through policy deployment (hoshin konri). Here, you operationalize the pursuit of perfection into a few select strategic initiatives that are targeted to drive the business towards perfection. Better still, if your organization is pursuing lean implementation, these can all directly connect to lean methodology, and thus the lean tool reinforces that strategic objective. We’ll discuss this more in a later post, but here’s another article on the topic.

But within the individual contributor level of an organization, each person is expected to continuously improve their role and function. In lean, this is called kaizen (Japanese for “continuous improvement”). With an organization committed to kaizen, there’s no step forward that’s too small or gets prioritized out of the way. Instead, each incremental step towards the goal of perfection is implemented into the culture of the business. Kaizen is not about finding a magic bullet that makes a process perfect instantly. It’s about doing the next right thing. The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first kaizen.

All of this begs one important question, however.

If perfectionism is unattainable and its pursuit stretches into infinity, then why should we pursue it at all?

The compelling reason to always be pursuing perfection from a human standpoint is this: We know that individual humans feel positive emotional states when pursuing a meaningful goal or objective and can see themselves getting closer to it (and they feel negative emotional states when either of those aren’t true). Perfection is a direction, rather than a goal. But it’s that direction that results in the organization having meaning and purpose. If you drive out waste and cost from a process, you are creating value for yourself, your colleagues, and your organization. Participating in that process can be unbelievably rewarding and meaningful and is precisely the sort of thing that all vibrant companies do. Corporate culture is not about foosball tables in the break room. It’s about whether each individual feels empowered to make their world a little more perfect than it was before.

Ultimately, it’s the pursuit of perfection that creates meaning and significance, both for the individual and the organization at large. The closer we come to achieving this perfection, the better, more profitable, and more just the world we will create through our actions. The pursuit of perfection is about recognizing that the process matters more than outcomes. And it’s the process of becoming perfect that makes the difference, as the results of pursuing perfection will always move life forward.


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