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Myth Busting 4: No Room To Improve

This particular myth is not overly common, but it still occurs, usually in the minds of people who are really good a fooling themselves. It becomes more common when it is modified to say, “…running as well as it ever has”.

There are two parts to this one: 1. We believe it is actually running well, or as well as ever, and, 2. We really think we’re great and there truly is no room to improve.


Indeed things may be good and as good as they’ve ever been. That is a remarkable achievement and not to be dismissed. The first part is based on observable and likely measurable fact. No argument.

In this case, like all good myths or even lies, there is enough of the believable to make the whole thing seem credible. We agree with the first part and accept the second part as immutable. And that’s how we fool ourselves.

In the second part, there is a presumption is that things can’t get better. Yet most of us would agree that continual improvement is always something to strive for. We do it in our personal lives, in our family situation, so why not at work too?

Better is always more than “best”. Philosophically, I don’t use the term “best practices” because there is always some better variation somewhere that I haven’t yet seen. I’m always learning from my clients. There are “good practices” (the term used in International Standards) and “successful practices”, the term I like. I like it because it allows you to be successful with practices that may or may not work well elsewhere. It recognizes our inherent uniqueness.

In “Uptime” I have a simple 6 step work management process. It’s basic and unadorned. Yet each of its 6 steps can have any number of variations. Every user has their way of adapting that simple conceptual process to their reality. Of course, some do it better than others, some automate parts of it, some automate almost all of it, some use paper work orders, etc. If it works at your operation, then it is successful for you.

Can you improve though? Even if things are running well I contend that there is always room to improve. I focus on two goals: efficiency and effectiveness. Efficiency is achieved by doing things better. Effectiveness is achieved by doing better things.

I worked at nickel mining operation overseas a few years ago. When I appeared on site at the request of the Chief Operating Officer, they were running at 131 million pounds of output (nickel matte) per year. Its target was 150 million pounds and had never been achieved. We focused on both efficiencies and effectiveness. Work management, planning, scheduling, integration with materials management and training in basic awareness of why things fail and what you (as an employee) can do about it, all helped reduce costs and streamline what work was being done. Downtime dropped from efficiencies, largely due to deploying workers and getting jobs done more quickly with fewer delays. We introduced Reliability Centered Maintenance to better define what proactive work the mine should be doing. By improving the maintenance program we achieve fewer failures and their attendant repairs, further reducing downtime. In one year after beginning this effort, we hit 154.7 million pounds, 169 million the year after that and 175 million pounds after the third year.

At the outset, there was believe that they were doing as well as they could and in fact, they were doing better than they had ever done before. Many, mostly managers, felt that there was no more room to improve.

The COO was new and was wondering why they couldn’t achieve their targets, even if they did appear to be stretch targets. He came in with fresh eyes and saw inefficiencies and room for improvement almost everywhere he went. Some were very obvious, some more subtle, but his experience told him they could do much better. When I went in, I saw much the same. There were indeed many opportunities if one would take the time to look.

What do you do about them? Managers, particularly those who have been in one operation for a long time, tend to have a limited perspective on what to do. They’ve learned how to do things well where they are, but they haven’t seen what “better” looks like”. They need fresh ideas and of course, they must be open to them.

There was resistance among many managers. There was the nay-sayer, there were those who defended the status quo and pointed fingers towards other departments. We had a mandate and they were told that they must get on board. A number (mostly new to the site) embraced the opportunity. We had some quick wins and that showed the others that there was indeed room to improve. The workforce embraced change more rapidly than many of their mostly ex-pat managers. They didn’t buy the excuses and they had the advantage of seeing, first hand, how things kept going wrong and how so little had been done to prevent recurrence. They wanted to learn (personal enhancement can help them get better jobs) and they wanted to be able to say that they were a part of a big success story.

Gradually we chipped away at naysayers and resistance attitudes and the improvements just kept on coming. The improvements continued to roll in long after we departed. We had set in motion a set of improved processes and given them tools they could use to keep the momentum going.

Bottom line:

“Better” is always possible, no matter how good you think you are doing today.