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Too Busy to Improve

by Mike Orzen
January 8, 2015

Too Busy to Improve

by Mike Orzen
January 8, 2015 | Comments (12)

The number of people I meet who tell me, “I don’t have time to make improvements to my work,” amazes me.

“It’s all I can do to keep my head above water!” usually comes next. Have you ever said something to this effect or at least felt this way? This kind of perceived barrier is very real to the person feeling it. But staying under water, always behind on work, doesn’t feel good either, so something needs to be done to counteract the paralyzing effect of these thoughts.

A paradigm is a mental map or pattern of how we view the world. Even if we know this, most of us aren’t necessarily sure which paradigm we’re operating in. Some paradigms help us (e.g., belief in respect for people) while others hurt us (belief that young people don’t care about doing a good job). The “I don't have time to make improvement part of my daily work” paradigm is particularly pernicious. So here are a few maps or patterns I use to help others and myself shift to a new way of thinking about work and with some practice, abandon the old paradigm:

  1. Work processes are either getting better or worse
    Left alone, processes atrophy and decline into a state of disorder due to the inevitable changes that occur and interdependencies along the value stream (think hand offs, conflicting priorities, and lack of visibility). Standard work is not sufficient to stem the tide of process degeneration.
  2. Unplanned work keeps us from improving
    Unplanned work is the work that eats away at whatever discretionary time we think we might have. Primary sources of unplanned work include rework, variation, break downs in the flow of information and materials, overburden, ill-defined work processes, and the unforeseen surprises that stem from conflicting priorities and a lack of transparency of the work (backlog and work in processes).
  3. Small improvements add up to big improvements
    Small changes in our work are also more sustainable. For example, it’s better to consistently practice your improvement work for 15 minutes a day, than to begin with the intent of spending an hour a day and then abandoning your commitment after a week from failing to find a free hour in your day. Daily practice is the key thing here. Aim for 40 consecutive business days of a new practice to create a habit. We tend to get good at what we consistently think about and do!
  4. There is tremendous influence in making things visible to our peers
    Creating a simple board that shows the date, topic, action taken, and next step(s) can be a game changer. A quick glance at such a board can quickly tell others what work is happening, what’s going well and what’s going wrong, and whether or not daily improvement work is taking place. This step takes courage, because you are making your commitment to process improvement public. But it also works because no one likes to make a commitment and not follow through.
  5. To change behavior, you need a routine
    You can’t improve if you don’t have a daily practice dedicated to improving. Thankfully, you don’t have to discover an effective routine and thought process to support a move towards daily improvement. Mike Rother’s gift to us all is Toyota Kata. This book skillfully explains the activities of daily problem solving, improvement routines that can be practiced and mastered, and the critical coaching element essential for developing people and creating internal problem-solving capacity. If you have not read this book – I highly recommend it.

In the end, though it may sound counterintuitive, dedicating time to daily process improvement is the only way out of the trap of feeling like you have no time. The only way to free up time to do more important work is to begin to chip away at the sources of firefighting and rework that are generating unplanned work.

What techniques have you used to successfully counter the “I don't have the time for improvement” thinking?

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  kaizen
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12 Comments | Post a Comment
Mark Graban January 08, 2015
7 People AGREE with this comment

It amazes me to hear "we don't have time to improve," but it's not surprising to hear. I hear it all the time, especially in healthcare.

In my short "Lean Talk" at last year's summit, I talked about the need to turn "lack of time" into a problem to solve, rather than letting it be an excuse that we hide behind.


A great strategy is to start with small (even tiny) improvements that don't take much time. Yeah, we might not have time for a big huge project, but we have time to make a small minor change. Then, we can free up time for more improvement and eventually bigger improvements. 

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Mark Graban January 08, 2015
4 People AGREE with this reply

I also love this blog post (and image) on the topic from Hakan Forss... 


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Jignesh April 25, 2015

I am bit unclear what is meant by " Left alone, processes atrophy and decline into a state of disorder due to the inevitable changes that occur and interdependencies along the value stream (think hand offs, conflicting priorities, and lack of visibility". I will also appreciate sharing bit more on how you recommend presenting these bullets to change the mental model of resitance from managers and senior leaders.

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Bert Dorman January 09, 2015
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Good article and interesting steps/ideas to improve processes.  Many times, people have the actual time to go do improvements; They just don't use are schedule their time to apply it to continuous improvements and then actually do it.

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Paul Harbath January 09, 2015

My all time favorite solution on this subject is in Visual Workplace Visual Thinking by Gwendolyn Galsworth. 

She requires that an "improvement time policy" be developed and published by the most Sr. officer in the plant. This policy officially defines the balance work time with improvement time.

Since it is published by the Sr Officer it is the "law".  

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Jignesh April 25, 2015

I haven't read Gwendolyn's work. But in general policies don't work! We have hand hygiene policy! Most healtcare organizations do. The compliance rate across the board in healthcare is around 60% or less.

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Dwight Otis January 10, 2015
1 Person AGREES with this comment

It always amazes me how many times I hear these same comments. I also recommend Toyota Kata. Also, recommend Paul Akers blogs as well.

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Enrique Garcia January 11, 2015

You are exactly right on everything, I am currently working on business unit of my company that is in deep problems with flow, quality and customer service at the end, we have started kaizen improvement on key pices of equipment and processes about a month ago and this is just becoming a snow ball of improvements that is already infecting the whole area, your words inspire me to just go further with this snow ball and seek for perfection

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Lorcan January 12, 2015
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Good post, leading through a standardisation project in my current role and all these points above are very relevant on a daily basis. Important to get people out of the mind frame that we do not have enough resources or the skill set to make change.


On one project I led, I challenged the team to come up with a list of 5 improvements each. We then brought in a Lean expert. When I reviewed the list the team had identified themselves after our Lean workshops, at least 95% of these improvements were what the Lean expert mentioned.


So why weren't these changes implemented before? Time. Important for every team, no matter the size, to dedicate time every month on Simplification Agenda

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Daniel Fisher January 29, 2015
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Caveman 1: "Hey, that looks hard pushing that log up that. Why not attach theese "Wheels"?"


Caveman 2: "Quiet! I dont have time for that!!! These triangles are working just fine! Its what we've always used!!!"


Future Guy: "Take a look at these sweet new rims I got for my triangles, now if only I could actually drive this car..."

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Tonya Carmien October 29, 2015
2 People AGREE with this comment

Interesting article.  I liked the term - Work processes are either getting better or worse - so much I googled it.  

I found the exact same article on another site attribed to someone else.



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Pat "The Zealot" January 07, 2016
1 Person AGREES with this reply

Can you say"plaigirism"?


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