The Improvement Paradox

We've all been there. We know that there is a better way to do what we are doing. There has to be. The universe isn't cruel enough for this to be the only way. If only you had a few minutes to think about the problem you are sure you could come up with something much better. Problem is, you don't have a few minutes. You are flat out trying to get whatever it is you are doing, done. And because the way you are doing it is inefficient, it's taking ages and you are already at risk of missing your deadline. You just have to keep going and hope you have some time once it's finished to work out a better way for next time. Of course that never happens because the next task is also inefficient and so that time to improve never materialises.

As AA Milne said in Winnie The Pooh -

“Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it."

Welcome to the improvement paradox.

 We know there has to be a better way to do whatever it is we are doing but we are too busy doing to work it out. We are so focused on our short term goal that we don't have time to think about how to improve. The problem, of course, is that until we improve, we will always be too busy. Hence the paradox.

We end up in a vicious catch 22 situation. To make matters even worse, systems tend to get less and less efficient when not maintained, so not only are we not improving, we are not even standing still. We are going backwards. We get busier and busier, working less and less efficiently, and have even less time to fix things. The improvement paradox gets worse over time, not better. So anyone who has ever said "just leave it alone, it will fix itself eventually" is just plain wrong.

We see this all the time. Teams that are too busy to hold retrospectives. Organisations that drop automated testing because there are just too many problems to fix now. Organisations that never find the time to improve those out of date processes.

So what do we do about it? There is really only one solution. You need to stop and take the time to fix the problem. It is the only thing that will make things better. Not only that, it's the only thing that will stop things from getting even worse. Doing nothing is not an option. Doing nothing makes things worse.

There is an old story that I heard once that talked about two woodcutters - an old, experienced one and an up and coming newcomer. The old woodcutter always cut the most wood each day but the new guy, being younger and fitter, was catching up fast. So one day the young guy challenged the old guy to a contest to see who could cut the most wood the next day. When they started, the young woodcutter surged ahead, cutting a huge pile of wood. The old guy just kept cutting steadily and took regular breaks. By lunchtime it was clear that the young guy's lead was diminishing; he was cutting slower and slower and working harder and harder. By evening the old guy was well ahead. What's more, the young guy was exhausted but the old guy was fine. The young guy couldn't believe it. "I cut all day and you took all those breaks," he panted. "What were you doing?" "Sharpening my saw, you young idiot!" was the reply.

The young woodcutter fell into the improvement paradox. He was too busy to improve, so his saw got blunter and blunter as the day went on, which made him slower and slower. The experienced woodcutter took time to improve and his work went smoothly the whole day.

There is an old saying that goes "When you find yourself at the bottom of a hole, the first thing you need to do is stop digging yourself deeper". Stopping and fixing things will not only prevent things getting worse but it will make your job easier. Generally, taking time to fix things will actually help you finish faster, not slower, because the work flows easier. You don't need to fix the whole problem, just enough of it to start making a difference. That little improvement will help you get finished faster. That then frees up time for other things and the whole situation improves.

The real trick though, is to take that time saving and reinvest it into more improvement. The temptation is to take the time saved and do more work, but that's just going to dig your hole a bit deeper. Improvement is like an investment; you can either take the interest (time saving) and spend it now (get more work done) or you can reinvest it for greater rewards later. Over the long term you are always better off reinvesting.

Reinvesting gets you into a virtuous cycle rather than a vicious one. The more you improve, the easier things get; the easier things get, the more time you have; the more time you have, the more improvement you can do. Over time, a small fix to make something a little bit more efficient can balloon into massive cost savings through efficiency.

Regular investment in improvement has large pay-offs later. The very worst thing you can do when under pressure is stop improving. Don't drop the retro because there is so much work to do, have an extra long retro to work out how to make things better. Don't battle the old process to get stuff done, stop and fix the process first.