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Improvement Thinking is Instinctive and as Natural as Breathing

The other weekend I joined some of my work teammates as we volunteered to make fireplaces for people who really need their lives improved by fire. Our company has a program called Fire For Life where we make small stoves that generate less smoke and use less fuel than what many people are using in poorer countries and in refugee camps. You can find out more about this program here.

This was the first time that I, and the others had built these fires ourselves and it was a complete unknown as to how it would go.

Understandably, the first fire I made took a long time. It was an unfamiliar process and I didn’t really know what I was doing. The second one was easier and by the third one I was feeling confident.

Quite naturally, as we made more and more fires, the conversations with my team mates turned to what improvements we had discovered to make the process easier. Different people had learned or found different tips and tricks. These were shared around the group and we used our new borrowed and discovered learnings to our advantage.

We were all proud when we completed all the fires we had planned for the day easily. Initially, I had thought that there was no chance we could get that much done on the first try.

The big learning I took from the day was the natural tendency of people in any environment to improve. We didn’t do any specific lean or improvement training before starting, we didn’t create a brainstorming team, we didn’t even discuss that a goal for the day would be to come up with improvement ideas. We just got stuck in and the improvements just naturally started flowing.

The moral here? Don’t overthink your improvement program. If you want to improve a process, just let some people work naturally in it and see what happens. Frankly, in my experience, people can’t help making things better if they have the opportunity.

As leaders we can focus on removing barriers to improvement rather than the improvement itself.

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