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Continuous Improvement – The Bondage of Never Enough and Killer Stress

Continuous improvement chains

In the current, ever-escalating effort to shape America’s corporate culture to closely resemble the Third Reich, we seem to have swallowed the hook, line, and sinker of the slavery of continuous improvement.

How was it

Gone are the days when a manager or boss could start a business meeting with the words, “Good job! We’re doing great. Just keep doing what you’re doing right now!” It never happens again. What we do now in our jobs and professions never seems to be good enough. We’re not just supposed to improve our performance, we’re supposed to continuously improve it. From a business math perspective, this means that improvement should take place over the smallest possible increment of time.

If you played 89 a second ago, your performance should be 90 in the current second and 91 in the next second. It’s not a way to live. This corporate mindset kills us with stress and unreasonable expectations. Let’s dig a little deeper and see if we can shed some light on what’s going on with this rather dramatic change in employer expectations.

Why Continuous Improvement?

Words are important. In fact, words are like containers. They can contain love, hope, encouragement, and many other intangibles needed to live a fulfilling life. But words can also constrain, demoralize and enslave listeners. The expression “continuous improvement” is interesting on the one hand because it is not possible. Continuous improvement is impossible because–hello!–we are not machines! We are unable to perform in the same way as we did yesterday or at ever increasing levels of performance. We are the people! We have good days and bad days. We did well at 9:00 but not so well at 10:30.

The overall effect can be excellent Tuesday and simply good Wednesday. However, like the machine, if we are under constant stress, we crumble. Live with corporate America – inconsistent performance is part of what it means to be human. (Of course, everyone knows that management and administration type people can’t improve all the time either – they just have the power to tell we do.)

The expression “continuous improvement” is interesting, on the other hand, because one can wonder why such a label was chosen, especially since no one can really do it. Why create an entire corporate culture around continuous improvement instead of a culture of respect or exceeding a high standard and coming home with a good roast? I suggest that word choice is oppressive and is a tool of domination to expect impossible levels of performance at all times and to justify punishment when expectations are not met. And, for the most part, it looks like we’ve bought into it. A good question at this point would be “If continuous improvement has become acceptable, what talk has it replaced?” I’m glad you asked.

good enough is good enough

Taboo words or concepts within a culture are very interesting. Once discovered, they give us a glimpse of what’s really going on behind Ozian’s curtain. Malcolm Gladwell had the courage to not only utter taboo words in today’s corporate culture (and I include education, health care, and all other bureaucratic institutions), but also to buttress its affirmation by convincing observations. He wrote in Outliers that good enough is often enough to accomplish what we need to do. In fact, someone who performs a task at the “good enough” level may have enough humanity to bring other dimensions to the task at hand and contribute to overall success greater than a narrow focus on continuous improvement.

Maybe “good enough” leaves some room for asking how the four-year-old did at T-ball practice or offering help to someone who’s overwhelmed. But alas, “good enough” has become taboo in today’s working world and it’s the kind of talk that’s only used by slackers and workers who clearly aren’t promotable. Don’t buy it. Get away from stress and get on with your life.

A natural stress reducer

Isn’t it amazing to see the number of stress-related health problems as the main cause? High blood pressure, cancer, overeating, depression, panic attacks and anxiety attacks all feed on stress – the kind of stress produced by a culture of continuous improvement.

So my suggestion to you, dear reader, is to let it go. Don’t buy into the system pressuring expectations for continuous improvement. Aim well enough. For most of us, good enough will be good enough to achieve all the desired results and more. Good enough is, well, good enough.

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