No Limits Improvement- The Power of Striving for the Impossible
Just recently, I started to form a theory around success and specifically improvement focused success. I started to see a recurring theme in past leaders and teams where I saw tangible improvement momentum build over time. All the environments in which improvement was seen had different people and process characteristics. However, key to all of these situations were two things: 1. Flywheel Thinking and 2: No Limits Mindset.
The Flywheel Concept is a powerful method and you can read more about it here. In this post, we are going to focus on the concept of a No Limits Mindset.
No Limits Mindset
I’ve been around high performing teams a bit over the years and if I had to put my finger on the key attributes of the most successful teams and individuals I have worked with, I would say that they all had varying degrees of a ‘no limits’ philosophy. By that I mean they were unwilling to accept the idea that their goals could not be met and focused instead on finding a way to achieve them. Now I don’t mean this in a “take no prisoners”, “close the deal!” kind of way but more of a “we can do the impossible” kind of way.
Taiichi Ohno, the celebrated “father” of the Toyota Production System had this to say about this concept:
“I’m not saying you have to discard all traditional ideas; I am only saying that you must not accept them as limitations. Most people either do not understand this or refuse to believe it. They are afraid of doing the exact opposite of what their predecessors have done and taught them to do.”
In the improvement world, when we begin we seek guidance from those who have come before, we learn standard concepts and often accept these as gospel. Great success can be achieved through the application of known and tested philosophy and concepts. Later on, when we are experienced we may begin to debate and compare concepts with others to solidify and cement the validity of these ideas. At this point, we begin to create our own ‘traditional ideas.’ I often see references on LinkedIn posts to what “Lean is” or “that’s not what Lean is”. The debates are interesting but inherently limiting. I would be more excited if the debates were “what Lean could be” or “beyond Lean”.
Sometimes people come on benchmarking tours to our company. They are interested in our ideas and our success with improvement. I often get asked “Do you use Kanban?” or “Are you using Heijunka”? My response is usually to say. “Well, kind of. Let me show you this cool hybrid thingy that we invented to solve this previously unsolvable problem.”
The basis of invention is the belief that something that does not currently exist can be created. This concept is centered around the idea that if it can be imagined, it can be achieved. The killer of innovation is the belief that it ‘cannot’ be done so let’s just settle for the best we can get.
By imaging perfection without applying limits, we can visualize perfect, unlimited outcomes from the start. Even if we have to settle for less than this, it is a far superior method over incrementally improving from the status quo.
Person A: If we are insisting on one piece flow painting in our new process, why do we still have batching in the folding area?
Person B: Well, it would be great but it’s just never been possible in folding so far. (limited mindset)
Person A: Really? What is stopping us? Maybe there’s away around it? Surely its technically possible? Imagine if we could fold one whole product at a time and deliver it!(no limits)
Person B: That would be amazing! Maybe you have a point. What we have learned so far was in was in a different process with higher volume and mix. We would have to solve the problem of a high number of set ups outweighing the processing time. Maybe, due to the lower volume we could find a way that we never found in the higher volume process? (no limits mindset activated).
In this conversation, Person A is in a no limits mindset from the beginning, asking questions that challenge traditional ideas and imagining perfection. Person B defaults to what they have already learned, even despite the fact they are an experienced lean practitioner (I am not ashamed to admit in this conversation I was Person B). Person A then challenges this, having already been challenged in turn (by person B) to create one piece flow painting so their mind is already questioning the status quo. It goes to show that its easy to stay with our ‘traditional ideas’ even if we are experienced and natural no limits thinkers.
Real Life No Limits Example:
I once had a colleague that was so frustrated with the quality of information that she was receiving for a process she was managing that she decided to move heaven and earth to fix it. The process was financially critical to the business but everything she had tried so far had failed to deliver results. If the information supplied to her wasn’t perfect, it would result in high value financial requests being denied for what were purely technical reasons.
My colleague had what I now know is a ‘no limits’ mindset. She studied the problem in detail, built an input spreadsheet with mandatory fields, and wrote specific instructions and procedures. Pretty normal right? Well here’s the no limits mindset. She then ran training after training and travelled to all of the remote sites around Australia (which is huge) to personally instruct every user in exactly how to use the system properly. She explained in detail why the information was critical and how to explain things in a way that would result in approval every time. Her result? Success! For sure, she did a lot of moaning and complaining about how frustrating the process was before she took steps but she refused to accept defeat. She refused to just accept, as her predecessors had, that poor information was just how it was. She would not give up until she found a way to succeed, to achieve perfection.
No Limits, just Guardrails
Whilst our imagination can have no limits and we can refuse to quit until we solve the problem, it would be foolish to assume that we live in a world without limits entirely. It might be better to describe the No Limits mindset as one where we believe that the impossible can be achieved within boundaries that are loose but reasonable. Guardrails might include physical limitations such as available space or financial restrictions. They would also include moral obligations like Respect for People or Do No Harm.
Guardrails however are just that. They are supposed to stop us from careening off the edges of the super exciting luge track, not slow us down or not allow us to choose our own best method. Here is an example of a no limits and guardrails conversation:
Person A: It seems that we have learned that we can’t grow at a faster rate than 20-25% per annum. It just causes too many infrastructure and training issues that hurt us later (seemingly impossible obstacle).
Person B: That’s true, but if we really wanted to grow faster than that we could do it (no limits mindset). We would just need to figure out how to overcome those obstacles that cause speed wobbles. It could be done if we were prepared to add overhead to administrate and manage such a growth rate for example(criteria for success).
Person A: Agreed, we could do that. I’m not sure the price is worth it though. (guardrails)
Person B: Maybe not.
Notice in this conversation, that despite the decision not to proceed, both parties acknowledge that the desired state could be achieved but right now, they don’t necessarily want to take the steps to achieve it. The conversation becomes more about choice than restriction.
The Power of a No Limits Mindset
Working towards a goal with a no limits mindset is truly liberating. It allows team members to challenge the status quo and think creatively, without having to worry about restrictions. It encourages questions like “Why Not?” and “What If?” rather that statements like “We Can’t”, “No one has ever.”
This kind of thinking is motivating and addictive. Achieving the impossible becomes an attractive concept. Team members begin saying: “It can’t be done?” “Who says?” “Just watch us”.
No limits thinking takes you beyond traditional methodologies and tools and into the design world. At a certain point, you realize that there is no text book with the formulas you need and no one to benchmark off. You have to make them yourself. Necessity forces you to move into the unknown in search of progress. If you are skilled at no limits thinking, this then becomes a process of imagination and then creation.
In Lean, we are encouraged to Ask “Why?” 5 times. This is a great concept but often overlooked as a tool rather than a philosophy. Once you have a no limits mindset your 5 Whys becomes deeply philosophical, challenging deeply held grass roots traditions, some of your own creation. You ask; “Why is this so?”, “What is the true goal?” and so on.
Looking back, I can now see that the times where my teams at the time gained the most radical and profound forward momentum were those times where we threw traditional thinking out the window. When the situation appears impossible and there is no roadmap to follow, focusing only on perfection without limits leads us to spectacular solutions.