May 31, 2012

Questioning Continuous Improvement (part 1 of 2)


The relatively new term "continuous improvement" is one of those buzzwords that by its very connotative penumbra manages to project a kind of positivity, and it burrowed its way into and eventually set down roots within education circles some time ago.  That's not surprising -- there's a continual back and forth flow between the worlds of education and business, along the channels of marketing, management, training, and that ever-so-ambiguous domain of "leadership."

Throughout my own career in academia, first as a student, then as a professor, a writer, and a coordinator of faculty development and assessment of student learning, a constant background  has been this discourse between the world of business and that of education, sometimes low as an almost soundless murmur, other times out in the open, seemingly subsuming all the available attention from every other kind of activity.  I'd say that in the last five years in particular, "continuous improvement" has shoved and elbowed its way to the front off the line of formulations frequently on the lips and minds of college and university administrators, trickling down to department chairs and committees detailed with laboring that concept, producing plans, reporting data, then doing the whole thing all over again.

Questioning Continuous Improvement

Recently, Harvard Business Review blogger Ron Ashkenas argued a case that It's Time to Rethink Continuous Improvement -- a very welcome suggestion.  I've noted myself, in an Orexis Dianoētikē blog post, that too much weight given to a closely related and similarly endorsed notion, "best practices," not only can easily become a substitute for real thought and good practical reasoning, becoming counter-productive in the process -- the uncritical attitude towards these sorts of buzzword concepts is often indicative of a deeper failure, one which assumes form as institutional culture.

I appreciate certain lines of cautions and criticisms of those now backing off from a continued level of commitment to the trope of continuous improvement -- and it's important to look at their reasonings for a new practical position -- so I'm going to hold off my own reflections and remarks until a bit later. First, though, for anyone who isn't directly involved with explicit processes and programs of continuous improvement, what is it?  One can turn to many resources for definitions of it, and the Encyclopedia of Business is as good a place as any:
a never-ending effort to expose and eliminate root causes of problems. Usually, it involves many incremental or small-step improvements rather than one overwhelming innovation
The notion comes originally from the Japanese Kaizen method or philosophy, which developed post-war, during the American occupation, as an integral part of the rebuilding of the Japanese economy and business culture.  Charter Quality Institute has a decently comprehensive, and not overly jargon-riddled factsheet on continuous improvement.  The general idea is to involve everyone concerned in some organization or activity-- and generally it works best with activities in which there are fairly well-defined but complex processes which involve a number of fairly standard components -- in interconnected and iterative process of assessment, improvement, measurement, reassessment, and so on.

Japanese Kaizen and its American version of continuous improvement has been applied and used fairly successfully in a number of contexts: industrial and manufacturing, management, customer service, healthcare, government, finance and banking, even those much more centered on the individual human subject, like coaching and psychotherapy -- and if you just Google "continuous improvement" and "education," you can get a sense of how attractive a prospect it increasingly proves for many involved in both K-12 and higher education -- particularly those keen to embrace one or another notion of innovation.  One very articulate example of this emphasis is provided by Planning for Higher Education Blog's piece Continuous Process Improvement in Higher Education -- but much more often continuous improvement is rather more inchoately conceived, invoked, imposed, measured, endorsed and reported about in education.

Criticisms of Continuous Improvement From Business

So, what could possibly be problematic about continuous improvement, rightly understood?  In fact, it seems like an approach which exhibits its strengths precisely in turning problems into occasions for assessment, improvement, perfecting (because perfection is never reached -- but perfecting. . . that one can always do) -- by gradually eliminating problems.  Still, when those who endorsed it begin to exhibit a more measured, qualified, "nuanced"perspective, it deserves a closer, more critical look.  
One criterion which is certainly relevant in any business setting is whether the approach really works, whether it continues to provide the payoff it promises.  And that's what Ashkenas focuses his attention: 
While it may be heresy to say this, recent evidence from Japan and elsewhere suggests that it's time to question these methods.
Admittedly, continuous improvement once powered Japan's economy. . . . through a culture of analytical and systematic change Japan was able to go from worst to first. Starting in the 1970s, the country's ability to create low-cost, quality products helped them dominate key industries . . .  Western companies, starting with Motorola, began to adopt Japanese methods. Now, almost every large Western company, and many smaller ones, advocate for continuous improvement.

But what's happened in Japan? In the past year Japan's major electronics firms have lost an aggregated $21 billion and have been routinely displaced by competitors from China, South Korea, and elsewhere. . . . Similarly, Japan's automobile industry has been plagued by a series of embarrassing quality problems and recalls, and has lost market share to companies from South Korea and even (gasp!) the United States.

Looking beyond Japan, iconic six sigma companies in the United States, such as Motorola and GE, have struggled in recent years to be innovation leaders. 3M, which invested heavily in continuous improvement, had to loosen its sigma methodology in order to increase the flow of innovation
Ashkenas' primary concern is that continuous improvement stifles "discontinuous innovation," regarded as a more important factor in the current lean economy.  I'd say that he's setting his finger on a certain sort of rigidity inherent, counter-intuitive admittedly, in any sort of serious, structured continuous improvement regime. He's far from the only critic of continuous improvement, whether in part and parcel or wholesale.  Just as one interesting example Bloomberg ran a piece, Six Sigma: So Yesterday -- not yesterday, but several years back.

Ashkenas, it must be noted, is not suggesting any radical move away from continuous improvement -- and I add is not engaged in any deep, serious critique of it either.  He proposes: "it's time to nuance our approach in the following ways:
Customize how and where continuous improvement is applied. One size of continuous improvement doesn't fit all parts of the organization. The kind of rigor required in a manufacturing environment may be unnecessary, or even destructive, in a research or design shop. . . .

Question whether processes should be improved, eliminated, or disrupted. Too many continuous improvement projects focus so much on gaining efficiencies that they don't challenge the basic assumptions of what's being done. . . .

Assess the impact on company culture. Take a hard look at the cultural implications of continuous improvement. How do they affect day-to-day behaviors? A data-driven mindset may encourage managers to ignore intuition or anomalous data that doesn't fit preconceived notions. In other cases it causes managers to ask execution-oriented, cost-focused questions way too early, instead of percolating and exploring ideas through messy experimentation that can't be justified through traditional metrics.
It's interesting to see how this critique of continuous improvement -- using "critique" in a extremely loose sense -- was taken up by others.  Given that Ashkenas, despite a seemingly bold start, merely advocates tweaking continuous improvement, it should not be surprising to see commentators following along, for instance, Slaughter Development's interpretation:
Harvard Business Review is right: continuous improvement is important, but not because we stick to officially approved methods. Rather, we must engender a mindset of always improving, always questioning, always thinking of better ways. Only when individual stakeholders are part of the process will true continuous improvement be at the center of the organization
So, what we really have, in all of this, is a call to a yet higher order, as well as a more flexible method, of continuous improvement.  The same basic commitments are all still there, in play, and remain fundamentally unquestioned even in the stance of examination, critique, reassessment.   Let me radically shift gears then -- downshifting really, engine-braking us with the ensuing shakes and shudders away from an effortless, high-performance, movement ever in the same direction, always down the same highway, to a slower, more deliberate pace at which we can see where one -- and why one -- might even be tempted to turn off.

Deeper Questioning of Continuous Improvement

The really central questions that ought to be asked -- to start us off --are these:
  • Is continuous improvement a good in-itself, an intrinsic good?  Or is it just an instrumental good?
  • If continuous improvement is an instrumental good, what more intrinsic goods does it serve?  Or, what are the goods that make continuous improvement good?
  • Does continuous improvement interfere with, diminish, or even undermine other goods?  are those merely instrumental or are they intrinsic goods?
  • How are those various goods -- those assured or attained by continuous improvement, and those diminished or destroyed by it -- weighed against each other?  Or is anyone even thinking about this issue?
There's a lot to be said about these sorts of basic moral questions -- and I don't by any means claim that these are the only ones which ought be raised -- which open up typically overlooked dimensions for well-informed practical reasoning about continuous improvement as an idea and ideal, as a practice permeating or penetrating into organizations, as a way of organizing and assessing human interactions with each other in the framework of common or corporate projects.

You'd be hard pressed to find someone who, if they stopped to seriously think about it, would defend the claim that continuous improvement is in itself itself a good -- something that we desire or value (or ought to, at least) for its own sake, not least because it clearly possess or promise some goals beyond its own processes -- otherwise nobody would have convinced organizational leaders that it is a good approach, that is, good-for-X, something to consider or to do for the sake of other goods that one wants to attain.  These other goods might be as simple as the bottom line of making more money, increasing profits and payouts.  Another possibility is customer satisfaction -- which can be understood in multiple ways, and yet another is employee morale and job satisfaction.  One might seek to hold or increase one's market share in a competitive field.  Or, one might want to generate a reliable, high-quality product -- and this last motive raises a particularly interesting issue.

Organizations are nearly always driven by a host of differing, and often competing values, ideals, goals, but typically they have one or several central matters with which they are most fundamentally concerned, which determine -- or ought to determine -- what goes on, what gets implemented, what gets decided and undertaken, and what gets produced.  You can call this the overriding telos of the organization.  For hospitals, it's diagnosing and treating illnesses and other harms to other people.  For a social service organization, it is connecting up those in need of services with the services relevant to their cases. For a university, it is teaching and learning, as well as generating and continuing research.  If it's a widget-making company, it is producing those widgets and supplying them to customers who want them.  I'll explore this in much greater detail in my follow-up post, but the point I want to make here is that continuous improvement is often (and rightly) understood as a merely instrumental good whose value resides in significant part in more fully realizing something that is an intrinsic good, the telos of the organization -- in short, continuous improvement is merely a means to a higher, more valuable end.  Whether continuous improvement is in fact a good depends on whether it does in fact -- and more than other available methods or approaches -- realize that organizational telos, as well as realizing other ends (like an attractive bottom line to show shareholders or trustees)

Now, there's two responses to this that ought to be mentioned and given a bit of thought.   First off, for some people, continuous improvement can and does become an end-in-itself, something invested with an aura of value for its own sake, in short an intrinsic good.  But, that sort of reversal of means and ends -- the fact that some people do get things backwards in their minds and hearts -- is nothing new. Plato discusses this in book 1 of the Republic, Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics and the Politics, and John Stuart Mill revisits this very issue in Utilitarianism. And, looking specifically at the bureaucratic manager, motivated by efficiency and effectiveness, Alasdair MacIntyre addresses this early on in After Virtue.  There's a particular seductiveness, though, to continuous improvement, I think, precisely because of the way it is conceived of and carried out -- it's something far easier to buy into, because after all, it does promise to incorporate and improve all the goods and values that are sensed or thought to matter, by each and all of the stakeholders involved in the process.  That looks and sounds awfully good -- like something good for its own sake, in fact.

This comes to the second interesting thing to note about teleology, means and ends, and continuous improvement.  For, as it turns out, when it is being done up to snuff, according to its own principles -- and how often that actually occurs is a much trickier issue better set aside! -- continuous improvement not only serves ends transcendent to, extrinsic to, better than, or of higher worth than, itself.  By its very nature, continuous improvement brings all sorts of other goods and values -- certain of them granted merely instrumental in value but others possibly possessed of intrinsic worth -- into its ambit, aiming at, advocating improvement of those goods. It necessarily makes them immanent to its own process and projects, and this is another side to its seductiveness, for not only can continuous improvement come thereby to seem like an intrinsic good itself, comprising, encompassing, realizing, harmonizing a host of other goods, it can even come to seem not only the means for -- but the measure and meaning of -- the other, higher, intrinsically valuable telos.

There remain several other connected questions to explore and answer, specifically about other goods which might be in some way diminished by a culture of continuous improvement, particularly when, on the basis of its decades of seeming success within the corporate business world,  it gets disseminated into all manner of other distinctively different sectors of our society and culture. I'm going to continue developing that line of moral inquiry about what we can call the ethos of continuous improvement in the depth and detail in deserves in a later follow-up post.

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