Are we afraid of big improvements (breakthroughs)?

By: Mickey Granot

For many years I am being driven by the desire to generate leap jumps (breakthroughs) in performance for my customers.


Let me define what in my eyes is a breakthrough in performance – it is an improvement of at least an order of magnitude, without any new technology breakthrough. A few examples: Reducing production lead-time by half within 3 months, achieving 99% delivery reliability within 3 months, reducing inventories by half within 3 months, quadrupling profitability within 2 years, quadrupling sales within 3 years, etc.


I believed that a meaningful, substantial jump in performance, as such, is something top managers naturally desire.


Life, however, kept encountering me with proof this is not the case. Most managers I met throughout my more than 30 years of career rejected such improvement initiatives with different excuses, and many of those that accepted it initially backed off after that. As many others, I did not allow facts to confuse me. I kept hanging on to my believe that top management is not only interested in breakthroughs, it is much more than that, top management desires performance breakthroughs. Led by this conviction I looked (and am still looking) for what is it that I am doing wrong in this process. Why is it that the managers I speak with tend to decline even investing minimal effort for evaluating the applicability of realizing breakthroughs?


In parallel to my own experience, when I look around I can see that the same managers are consuming excessively, almost any new (or old) improvement ideas and initiatives that offer small, incremental improvements. far away from the possibility of breakthrough. The major effort in seeking breakthroughs is in new products, not so much in improvements.


All of these effects I’ve been witnessing for so many years, got me wondering, are we really looking for breakthroughs, or are we happy with technological breakthroughs but in processes this is not the case? It seems to me, the reality is (for many) that not only are we not seeking breakthroughs we actively wish to avoid them at all cost. Saying that got me questioning, why? It seems to be counter intuitive and even illogical to say that given the opportunity to achieve breakthrough in performance, people will actively resist it, isn’t it?


However, it cannot be that the effect exists – which is – more often than not, top managers decline even making a small investment exploring the opportunity of realizing breakthrough performance, without this effect having a cause. What can that cause be? Many will say – it is the fact that with experience people became accustomed with a reality where the bigger the company is, the tougher it is to realize breakthroughs. Others may claim, it is because we naturally do not believe in miracles. But, I find these explanations hard to accept, as there are (true not too many, yet not too little) examples of companies that have made it, and even continue making it. So faced with success of others, we tend to still negate the opportunity saying something like “Yes, it worked for them, but we are different”.


All of that makes me wonder, if deep down we are just afraid of this opportunity. We are afraid it will make us feel and be seen stupid. If such a breakthrough is possible, how is it we did not do anything about it so far? It looks like this can explain this behavior. We are afraid of our own self esteem being ruined, and equally from the esteem we get from others. And this fear may very well be blocking us from what seems to be the natural thing for us – the desire for a breakthrough. We desire it, but maybe we are just afraid from it a little more than we desire it?

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