Post by Bill Bellows, Deputy Director, The Deming Institute.
On a summer weekend in 1997, I visited my office for a short time before heading home after a few errands near work. At the time, I was a member of the company’s Continuous Improvement Team, a later version of a Total Quality Management Office. Upon dropping in, I met a young co-worker, Paulo, who quickly made the observation that my hair was shorter. After acknowledging his assessment, he inquired as to where I went for my haircuts. I mentioned the name of the place, adding that it was a few blocks away from work. He then asked how long I have been a customer of this hair stylist. No sooner did I reply, “For 7 years, since joining the company,” did he begin to smirk and then laugh, prompting me to ask “What’s so funny?” “Well,” he replied, “You work in the Continuous Improvement Team and go to the same hair stylist for 7 years?” He and I continue to laugh at my reply, when I reminded him that at the time I had been married to the same person for 14 years.
When it comes to gardening, my wife has an exceptional green thumb and is an artist in our backyard. In addition to plants and a few bird feeders, we enjoy the beauty and serenity of a koi pond. Designed by our son, our pond has consumed hundreds of hours in construction time, often assisted by hand tools and an occasional power tool, such as an electric spade. We relish the time savings and labor savings, not to mention blister savings, of tools as much as any DIYer enjoys their tools. Just as pliers provide a mechanical advantage when tightening a bolt, tools provide an economic advantage. Without bothering to use a pencil or paper to perform the calculation, we believe the labor savings from the use of tools has yielded has a positive return. Likewise, we believe the resources we have invested in the home improvements will yield a positive return, one that could be estimated. Is it odd to contemplate the potential return on the improvement in our home? But, would we continually improve our home? Or, thinking systemically, would we contemplate if additional improvements would yield a positive return on our overall investment, subject to the current market value of homes in our neighborhood?
While we may not be overly conscious of our thinking about the returns on our everyday investments, could it be that thinking about improvements in our daily lives (when we choose to improve something), is guiding how we manage resources, from our time to our garden tools to our spending money? Why else would sales or discounts in department stores and supermarkets capture our attention, if not the ability to “buy more for less”? Might the appeal of “more for less” also attract consumers to Southwest Airlines’ policy of not charging baggage fees, while their competitors charge for stowed baggage, extra leg room, or, perhaps the ability to confirm seat reservations?
When it comes to doing more with less, also consider how we use systems awareness to arrange our weekend activities, sequencing errands to both maximize the number of tasks accomplished and minimize the time and energy consumed. In business circles, the concept of return on investment is far older than Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and remains the steady focus of investors from Warren Buffett to Richard Branson to my wife’s stock club. In simple terms, buying low and selling high, with consideration for the size of the system (including time), is the foundation of examining systemic improvements. One could also look at this as investment thinking.
Several years ago, our daughter and I attended a Coldplay concert at the Hollywood Bowl. While a few hours shorter than an average Bruce Springsteen concert, we both judged the evening to be a positive return on our respective investments. How many times, we could not say. Our only disappointment was purchasing two commemorative coffee mugs, for which mine did not survive its first dishwashing experience. 10 dollars later, I am the proud owner of a white mug, absent Coldplay’s signature logo, yet retaining a “dishwasher safe” label and providing a ready reminder that not all investments yield a positive return.
In reflecting on our 34th wedding anniversary, I am reminded that Paulo’s confusion is not an isolated case. Does continuous improvement really mean change everything, be it at work or in our personal lives? Or, should we “Mind the Choice” and ask where would change bring us improvement and where would maintaining the current practice continue to serve us well, now and into the future? Looking more broadly at the system we are managing, is an improvement a worthwhile investment or would there be a better return to not make a change?
Related: Video – The Deming Management Method