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Systematic improvement

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Systematic improvement

Scott Miker

There is a lot of talk about improvement in business.  It always seems like people are trying to get better.   

But I’ve found that the term improvement can be misleading.  Often I’ve seen people focus on setting goals and reaching them, proving that they improved, but somehow not really growing at all.

The reason is that setting goals and working hard to reach them can be a way to jump from one area to the next without solidifying the improvement made to reach the goal.

In other words, instead of truly improving over the long term, we simply change the goal so we can keep hitting our goals but not translate that into lasting improvement. 

So if we are trying to improve, we should really look at systematic improvement.  We should look at growing, then standardizing that growth, then looking for more ways to get better.   

If we skip the important step of standardizing the behaviors and thoughts that got us to our goal, then we just keep starting over. 

When I was in high school I worked for a retail store.  The corporate office would always give us goals to hit, individually and as a store.  One month we would have to increase the number of units per sale.  The next month they wanted us to sign up as many people as possible to the rewards program.  The following month they would want us to sell accessories.

This seems like a great way to keep getting better.  But what happened was that our focus would shift and we would hit a goal without standardizing what we did to hit that goal.

So the next month we would revert to our old behaviors and the unit per sales number would go back to what it was prior to the goal being set.  But our focus was on the new goal and we would sign up more people for the rewards program.

But after the month the signs ups would again decrease.  We didn’t notice because we were striving to hit the new goal around accessory percentage. 

This is similar to New Year’s resolutions.  We set a goal and start strong but soon get bored and move on to something else.  We keep moving the target.  So whether we hit the goal or not we start over as soon as our focus shifts.

But there is a better way.  The better way follows many of the continuous improvement models in business.  We look to improve, then standardize the new actions, and then look for more ways to improve. 

We can do this over and over and keep building on the efforts of today.  But the key is the important step to standardize what we did to reach the goal.

This is systematic improvement.  This is how we systematically grow and get better over time.  Systematic improvement is possible but it takes a slightly different approach than setting a goal and then immediately looking for a new goal.  It simply involves the key step of standardizing the steps.  

When I worked at the retail store I started to realize this.  I decided to take a different approach when we would receive our goals for the month.

Instead of shifting my effort to be focused solely on that month’s goal, I started to look for new ways of selling.  I started to change the behaviors I relied on to sell.

One example was with the rewards program.  I didn’t just make sure to tell everyone about the cards during the month that the rewards goal was set.  I started to evaluate how I tried to get people to sign up and then get in the habit of doing it every time.

I didn’t know it at the time but I was establishing a standard.  I was solidifying the process I was using. 

Then I started to try out different strategies.  We measured the daily number of signups so I could quickly and easily see what strategies worked and what didn’t.  I could compare to the original standard to determine if I found a better way.

Over time I started to change my processes pretty drastically. 

At first we were just told to “ask everyone.”  But just asking someone wasn’t enough.  Most people are conditioned to say “no” at the checkout counter before really even knowing what they are being asked. 

So I started a different process.  I didn’t just say, “Do you want to sign up for our rewards program?”

I would say something along the lines of, “if you have your rewards card I could scan it so you earn the point for this purchase.” 

Then when someone said, “I don’t have one”, I could reply with surprise and go through a routine where I pulled it out and spoke about it to emphasize the value and zero risk since it was free.  I would hand them a pen and open the form so it was right in front of them.  Then I would tell them about it while going through the items and getting everything in the computer system for the transaction. 

Not only did it result in more signups but also instead of people saying, “no” and being annoyed, they felt that I was helping them save money.  Often people would thank me for telling about the program and would sound upset that they have shopped in the store before and nobody bothered to tell them about it. 

This new process resulted in a significant increase in signups.  And it wasn’t temporary.  I turned this new process into the standard and suddenly I was consistently performing better.  I had systematically improved the process of getting someone to sign up.   

But in our personal goals, we often ignore the standardization element.  We set a goal and then immediately try to change our behavior.  We don’t take the time to see what it is we are doing and then make sure it is consistent.  We think, “why bother if I’m going to just end up changing it.” 

But then that change starts to lose momentum.  We lose motivation and our old habits start to push through our willpower until we are back doing what we always have done.  The short-term increase ends up meaningless after a few months or a few years.  If we want to improve in that area, we have to start over again. 

The systems and habits approach to improvement is different.  It starts by evaluating the routines and patterns in our behavior.  Then we start to make very small changes that we stick with. 

Instead of hoping motivation and effort will result in significant change, we start very small and work to change those habits and routines slowly.  Over time they start to become the new standard.   

If we start to find better ways of doing things, then standardize, then repeat, we will continue to improve more and more over time; we start to systematically improve.  Instead of jumping from one area to the next without keeping what you improved, learn to standardize so you can keep the value of hitting a goal but turn it into long-term, systematic improvement.