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In Search of the Unicorn!

It’s not real!

We’re a funny old race, we human beings!

The minute we are told something doesn’t exist, we assume it is, and go in search of it!

It doesn’t matter if there is a huge amount of scientific evidence to support the non-existence of the thing, in fact, that only seems to stiffen our resolve, and so determined (and otherwise perfectly sensible) people go off in search of the mythical entity.

You know the kind of thing....

  • The people who have spent years on the banks of Loch Ness waiting for a glimpse of Nessie
  • The people who have spent frozen years trekking through the Himalayas in search of a sighting of Bigfoot
  • The intrepid individuals who have spent endless nights lying in wait in the Wiltshire countryside waiting to catch aliens in the act of creating crop circles
  • And of course, the determined travellers who, despite absolutely no evidence to support their quest, have travelled to far off lands in search of the mythical Unicorn

But sadly, other than the occasional grainy image of something that could easily be absolutely anything, nobody has ever provided any evidence that any of these, and many other, myths and legends are anything other than just that... myths and legends.

  • Not real
  • Non-existent

But this still doesn’t deter them, and at the first unsolicited rumour that ‘something big was moving through the waters of Loch Ness”, you can’t get near the banks for anoraks and cameras!

The sad truth is, they’re wasting their time looking for something that doesn’t exist, and because their quest is something that most of us can recognise as being ridiculous, it’s easy to heap derision on their folly and console ourselves that more normal, rational human beings would never be so deluded as to waste their valuable time searching for something that simply doesn’t exist.

You wouldn’t catch me doing that

And yet, in the rock-solid, grown-up, sensible world of business, I encounter people all of the time who are similarly looking for something that I know they’ll never find because just like Nessie, Bigfoot and the Unicorn, it simply doesn’t exist.

These people would consider themselves rational, professional and certainly above the mad antics of those people who go in search of the impossible, and yet, without seeming to realise it, they are doing precisely the same thing in looking for something that isn’t there and waiting for a moment that will never arrive.

And this Holy grail that they seek?

It is the mythical ‘perfect time’ to begin to introduce continuous improvement into their business.

Yes that’s right, everyone is waiting for the moment when it will be ‘easier’ or ‘right’ to start training people, developing the systems and setting up the mechanisms for people to offer improvement ideas and then participate in getting them executed.

Now isn’t the moment of course... it never is.

It’s always at some indeterminate point in the future when all of the planets will align, and it will magically be eminently possible to take people away from the workplace to train them, to assign labour and resource to the processes and people that will be necessary for the programme to take root, and then to be able to regularly stop production to actually implement the improvements suggested by the people.

Soon... but not now.

We certainly intend to...

Oh, yes, everyone I have ever spoken to on the subject INTENDS to.

That’s usually why they’re talking to me... because they have asked me about working with them to help them make it happen.

They certainly intend to, and this usually leads to me supplying delivery proposals, training packages and timing plans that would provide a route map to having people trained, systems installed and activities launched, and whilst a brave few then get on and do it, many more don’t.

Instead they tell me they would like to move ahead, but ‘the time isn’t right’.

They tell me they are DEFINITELY interested in what I have proposed, and it all makes perfectly good sense, and they definitely WILL move forward soon, but not until the ‘time is right’.

So, let’s examine the usual scenarios to see why it is so difficult to find this utopian moment when the crosshairs line up with the bullseye, and its clearly the right moment to pull the trigger and start the business’s Lean journey.

We’re too busy

That’s a good thing. The business has a full order book and if anything, they’re struggling to keep up with customer demand as it is. They’re working overtime, taking on temporary staff and constantly struggling to meet their customers’ delivery requirements.

Managers are stressed and stretched to full capacity and spend every working hour juggling insufficient resource to try and keep up with what is needed.

How on earth can this be the right time to introduce a continuous improvement programme?

Not only are the staff fully ‘maxed out’ but as we have a full order book, we must be doing SOMETHING right, so why do we need to consider continuous improvement anyway?

I get it... I really do.

It is indeed extremely difficult to justify taking people away from something seen as directly productive (ie contributing the manufacture of a product or the execution of a service that a customer is waiting to buy from you) to do something that might not yield an immediate benefit, and certainly not something that would contribute to what the managers of the processes would consider anything they would be judged against (ie keeping the customer happy NOW).

It’s easy for me to say that if they did, the long-term benefits would be huge, and not only are they likely to identify genuine cash savings that would likely exceed whatever the employees would have generated in ‘sales’, but they would also identify a way of improving the way the job got done, so that in future it would be easier to hit, and indeed exceed, goals and targets.

It’s difficult to sell ‘jam tomorrow’ when you’re judged on what happens today.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

Another classic scenario is the situation where I’m told that yes, the business wants to introduce continuous improvement, but they receive few complaints about the products and/or services they supply, so ‘everything must be OK’, and so, therefore, it doesn’t seem worth the bother and cost right now.

The trouble is that, even if this were true, it is easy to become complacent and allow standards and performance to slide... the old saying “if you aren’t moving forwards, you’re moving backwards” is pertinent here, because if a business rests on its laurels and chooses to coast along doing what it has always done, in the way it’s always done it, you can bet their competitors aren’t... they are driving forward, trying to find quicker, better, more effective ways of getting things done which will ultimately result in lower costs and higher quality... and thus give them a competitive advantage.

And that’s ‘best case scenario’!

What if things aren’t as good as you think?

What if rather than complain, your customers have grown tired with stagnant prices, average quality levels and adequate delivery performance, and have therefore already looked at alternative sources?

Yes…. that’s a stable door you can hear banging!

We’re up against it

What about if the business is struggling?

What if the order book isn’t as strong as expected (a very common situation right now as we begin to navigate our way out of the Covid-19 pandemic) and so we’re in the unenviable position of not having enough work for our staff to do.

How on earth can we consider embarking on training when at the same time we are having to consider headcount? It just doesn’t seem right.

Not only is this a dilemma for the business, but it is also difficult to contemplate for the workforce as well because when the threat of headcount reduction is in the air, nobody wants to appear to have time on their hands!

It’s hair shirt time here, and the thing people are often reluctant to contemplate, but it is a fact that when work is scarce, just like in a massive, complex game of ‘pass the parcel’ nobody wants to be seen to have nothing to do at the time when cuts have to be made. So, what’s the incentive for people to find even faster, more efficient ways of getting the job done, when there isn’t a ready supply of work coming up behind to keep them in a job in the future?

Catch 22

For those unfamiliar with the famous book Catch 22 written by Joseph Heller, the basic premise is that someone was trying to get out of being in the American Military by claiming they had gone mad, however, the authorities claimed that only a sane person would try and claim to be mad in the circumstances, and so they continually reject any such claims!

In the world of business, there is a similar ‘Catch 22’, and it is in the scenarios I have just described.

  • If we’re busy, it’s not the right time
  • If everything appears to be OK, it's not the right time
  • If we’re up against it, its not the right time

So there IS no right time... there IS no Unicorn.

No time like the Present

So, if we can accept that there is no ‘right’ time to introduce a continuous improvement initiative, then we surely have to surmise that the right time is probably right now! Embarking on a continuous improvement programme will always cause disruption, re-direct resources and need investment in terms of cash and effort, so there really is no point waiting.

The good news is that, whilst there will be challenges, the benefits are well worth the effort, and can include:

  • Significant return on investment, in terms of energy saving, cost reduction, performance improvement and employee engagement
  • Many of these benefits cut in very quickly, so even if you are busy, the performance savings are likely to offset the time invested in the programme
  • It will identify improvements in product manufacture or service delivery that you hadn’t even realised were possible
  • It will gainfully and productively retain your workforce in difficult times, so that when demand increases you have better means of satisfying it, and your workforce is still intact

So, if you’re one of those people who was waiting for the right moment, I hope you will feel that now is the hour because there really is no time like the present.


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Published at: 25-08-2020