Ice Fishing and Seeking Perfection

Recently I was out enjoying a hobby of mine in my home state of Wisconsin. I was ice fishing. A rather miserable activity where we drill holes in frozen lakes seeking fish. The bright spot in that day was enjoying the company of a friend I hadn’t seen in quite a while. About 30 minutes from the time we started, he laughed as he studied the look on my face. He knew I was considering and about to suggest we make a change in our tactics. We had yet to have a bite and he was content at this point to wait a bit longer. I asked him why he laughed, to which he replied, “You simply can’t help trying to figure out how to catch the most possible fish in the shortest time with the least effort, can you?” It was a rhetorical question and one he got wrong, because I also wanted the biggest fish!

I share this story to illustrate the principle of seeking perfection. Let’s start with exploring and studying the word "perfection." Perfection is a term that brings to mind an image for all of us, and for many, perfection is more of a theoretical term that can be challenging to apply in a practical sense. After all, for any process or condition, what is perfection? Depending on your experience, you might say that perfection is meeting customer need exactly, or that perfection is a condition free of defects. In my experience, I view perfection as rather synonymous with ideal, and it could be described as “on demand, defect-free, in one-piece flow, without waiting time, and free from injury.”

Perfection, Practically

In a practical sense, perfection depends on the condition we are trying to create. As an example, are we trying to improve literacy in a community, ensure patients never receive hospital-acquired infections, or provide perfect call handling in a call center? In each example, perfection is the outcome of the ideal combination of the sum of the people, processes, materials, etc.

One day, early in my operations career, we completed an exercise that helped me define perfection in a practical way. We studied a process thoroughly enough to know what was physically possible. That is to say, under flawless conditions, what “could” the process be and what outcomes were possible? We sought to understand what was possible, free of boundaries unless placed by the laws of physics or the universe, not bound by tradition or artificial barrier.

I now know this as the Theoretical Limit, and this thinking helps me frame how I see perfection. By understanding the Theoretical Limit and comparing to my current condition, it is now possible to see the inherent potential.

No Hide, Only Seek

Understanding perfection, however, is not enough if we want excellence. The same as the other Guiding Principles in the Continuous Improvement dimension of the Shingo Model, "Seek Perfection" is a verb/noun combination. To achieve operational excellence, it is imperative that we make change, to take action. If we consider the seeking as “how” we pursue perfection, then we have decisions to make.

For example, if I am working with a client who wants to reduce their employee injury rate, I have choices in how to coach. If I coach them to develop a few expert problem solvers who can follow the problem-solving processes closely, then we might hypothesize that the problem-solving process will be more rigorous and effective (reducing recurrence of injury), but it will be limited in scope of injuries reduced.

Another option would be to coach them to engage everyone in attempting to solve problems leading to employee injuries, in which we may hypothesize that the problem solving will not be as rigorous and we’ll see some recurrence, but the effort will address more injuries.

In a perfect world, with this client, all injuries would be solved to root immediately under the guidance of a coach; however, this “perfect world” usually does not exist, and we must take action to seek it.

As we contemplate approaches, it is important to remember that the principle “seek perfection” is not only applicable to the work system. Just like we seek perfection in the “products” we create for our customers, we also need to seek perfection in how we improve. Improvement that does not include everyone, everywhere, every day is not ideal. If only a small handful of people make the improvements, then perfection is unattainable.

As a new operational leader, eager, full of ideas, and armed with new tools, I learned this the hard way. I charged ahead of my team trying to solve every problem the team had ever faced. Months later I was exhausted, alienated, and had little to show for my efforts. I learned the hard way that in order to seek perfection, I had to engage my whole team. It didn’t matter what skills or ideas I had if my team was not engaged. So I changed my approach and I started to work daily with my team on problems, shoulder to shoulder. We improved and equally, if not more importantly, we learned.

Taking action is how we sought perfection and as long as we were learning it was alright not to be perfect. As we sought perfection, we took time to work on the right problems and then design experiments to test hypotheses. At the end of each experiment, we checked our actual outcomes against what we expected, and then we adjusted as we designed the next experiment. We accelerated our rate of learning and quickly improved processes and outcomes. Step by step we moved closer to perfection.

We are Wired to Seek Perfection

Stopping to consider the never-ending work to move step-by-step closer to perfection, it could seem daunting, and it might disengage teams and challenge morale. The reality is that if we embrace the scientific method and celebrate the learning and achievements along the way, we are simply kick-starting the human spirit.

Consider the story at the start of this piece where my friend was laughing at me while ice fishing. He laughed at me because I couldn’t help but seek improvement (toward perfection) in something as simple as ice fishing. What he didn’t share was the fact that while we sat idly, he also was thinking of experiments to try. What we both crave is a perfect ice fishing experience, one we know we’ll never experience, but will also never stop seeking.

We naturally find better ways to do things each and every day, because as humans we are wired to continuously improve. This innate desire to improve is the fuel that we tap into as we seek perfection.

(This post first appeared in the Shingo Institute blog).

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