Continuous Improvement on a National Scale

By Jamie Flinchbaugh, co-author, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean

We all struggle with taking continuous improvement from a department or process level to an enterprise level. But what would it mean to take it to a national level? What would that look like? I saw a taste of this that impressed me a great deal.

Most of you that partake in international business know that perhaps the #1 threat to business in developing areas is dealing with corruption. During a recent trip to Malaysia, the newspaper had a pretty extensive report on their own efforts to improve this. Every year a survey and study is done by Transparency International that ranks countries by corruption. You can view the study here.

What does it take to practice continuous improvement on a national scale? Fundamentally, the same thing as in organizations, except with one major difference. On the national scale, you must encourage people to do it for themselves, at all levels and all socioeconomic levels. It begins with helping people understand current reality. In the interview about Malaysia’s effort, it started here: “We decided to develop an integrity survey that covers what Malaysians think about themselves.” It also must be done with the right attitude. They continued: “This is the health-check that we should have had a long time ago, so that we know where we are, what we need to do to improve things.” Whether it is true health checks or some other kind of assessment, how many organizations such as this go through such an effort. How do we really know where we are? Without some purposeful, explicit effort, we essentially tell a story to ourselves.

Everyone wants to see progress, but how we frame that progress is vitally important. Malaysia ranked 43rd on the study by Transparency International. That can’t be too good, but that is based on external perception. There is no doubt that external perceptions will be based on past experiences and is someone is making progress in either direction, perception will lag reality. So it is important to review the internal progress based on what people see who are closest to it every day. Hence, the start of an annual survey of Malaysia by Malaysians. They state: “The only real comparison we can make is when [the following year’s] results come out. Then we can see whether it is getting better or worse; and we can then move from there.”

I think the healthiest comment I found was this: “We must not always compare ourselves with those who are below us.” This is something that we all must remind ourselves of. Malaysia, as far as Asian nations go, is doing pretty well at 4th. Only Singapore, Japan, and Taiwan are ahead. But so are any other countries, and Singapore which it neighbors is tied for 4th in the world. The United States generally feels pretty comfortable that it has a low level of corruption, which is indeed true. Is it better to be comfortable in our own success, or focus instead on the fact that there are 19 countries that rank better that we. This is common for even lean managers inside companies. You learn, apply and become further ahead on the lean journey that just about everyone around you. Do you become focus on the gap between yourself and everyone else, or your own gap between where you are and where you could be?

I have no doubt that through the attitude and tactics taken that Malaysia will improve. I don’t expect them to rank in the top 5 next year, but their efforts at transparency, reflection, and continuous improvement can only lead to positive results.

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Jamie Flinchbaugh is a lean advisor, speaker, and author. In addition to co-founding the Lean Learning Center, he has helped build nearly 20 companies as either a co-founder, board member, advisor, or angel investor. These companies range from high-performance motorcycles to SaaS tools for continuous improvement. He has advised over 300 companies around the world in lean transformation, including Intel, Harley-Davidson, Crayola, BMW, and Amazon. Jamie co-authored the popular book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean, and continues to share his experiences as a Contributing Editor forIndustryWeek and as a blogger at JamieFlinchbaugh.com. He holds degrees from Lehigh University, University of Michigan, and MIT, and continues to teach and mentor on campus. Jamie is best known for helping to transform how we think about lean from a tools-centric model to one based on principles and behaviors. His passion for lean transformation comes from seeking to unlock the great potential that people possess to build inspiring organizations.

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1 Comment on "Continuous Improvement on a National Scale"

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  1. Anonymous says:

    “What does it take to practice continuous improvement on a national scale?”

    I’m American, so I’ll answer for the country I know (and mostly love).

    Maybe I’m having a cynical day, but could our country actually follow the Toyota Way principles or even some of Deming’s basic ideas? We’re not even close.

    The business culture is selfish and short-term and greedy. Look at the financial sector (and Bob Nardelli, et al) — give us obscene paychecks but bail us out when we screw up and, for example, loan money to people who clearly couldn’t pay it back. “We’re too big to fail” the finance people say, so the government HAS to bail them out or the economy will tank. That sounds like blackmail. Who let them get that big? Who profited from the deals and mergers that made them so big? And who is paying the price? It’s sickening. Ugh.

    Looking at government, there’s no such thing as PDCA. What government programs ever get killed because they don’t work? Do they even measure success rates? No, just say what it takes to get elected. Let’s add more programs on top of failed programs, my selfish pork spending is offset by yours, slap on the back, ha ha.

    Say what it takes to meet your sales quota, to make enough loans, to close the big deal.

    Our culture is sick. Washington DC and Wall Street set such a horrible example. This is all probably human nature, so I shouldn’t indict just our own culture, but I’m not optimistic for where things are going. When teen girls worship the moron “celebrities” on the E! network instead of wanting to be scientists…. we’re hosed.

    Wow, I got off on a bit of a rant there (with apologies to Dennis Miller).

    So you want a kaizen culture? Dream on.

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