Does Your Company Take a Tortoise or Hare Approach to CI?

Subikash Roy

How to achieve sustainable success

The story of the tortoise and the hare has some important lessons for continuous improvement, argues contributor Subikash Roy. Are you working in a sustainable way to support your company's strategy or sprinting from point to point - easily losing focus on the big picture?

Almost all companies have a great vision statement that decorate the walls. But how many people within those companies actually understand the vision statement? How many people understand how what they are doing is moving them closer to the company’s vision?

As business executives run after growth and new business, many remain oblivious of the inherent capabilities of the organization. It's important to consider whether the organization is ready to run with you.

To understand why this is important you need look no further than the children’s story of the hare and the tortoise.

We should all be familiar with the details of the story: One day the hare told the tortoise, "Let’s have a race". So they fixed a route and agreed to the race. They went back to the starting point and the race began. The hare, of course, started off quickly, gaining a huge lead on the slow-moving tortoise. But, eventually, the hare started to get tired and kept looking back to see how far the tortoise was.

When he could not run any farther the hare parked himself under a tree and rested, convinced the tortoise was far enough behind. After a while the hare fell asleep. Meanwhile the tortoise continued at its steady pace and, in time, overtook the hare. When the hare woke up, he found that the tortoise was almost at the finish line. He ran as quickly as he could but could not make it to the finish line before the tortoise.

What can we learn from this story? I would argue that many of our businesses are a little bit like the hare. We are fixated on the wrong things and rapidly running after them - but not in a sustainable way. We sprint after something, get distracted and tired, then lose focus. If we do cross the finish line first, it's by chance rather than an easily repeatable - and sustainable - effort.

This is the difference between what I would consider having success and being successful. So many of our companies are focused on achieving success (the noun) but not on actually being successful (an adjective that describes a state of being). I believe it’s a subtle distinction but an important one that illuminates several important principles of continuous improvement. Do you want to have success or do you want to be successful?

Figure 1 below shows what I see as the difference between focusing on achieving success and actually being successful:

Figure-1: The Difference between Success and Successful

The tortoise knew its own strength and the strength of its competitor. Even then he agreed to run the race. Why? The tortoise had vision. And that was to reach the finish line step-by-step. He took each step and then defined the next step. He was focused on what he wanted to achieve. His actions were directed towards the next step only, while keeping the vision clear.

What about the hare? He believed from the beginning that he had already won the race: he was faster than his competitor, so how could he lose? The hare had only one focus; to win the race. He thought that running faster than the tortoise was his biggest strength. As Jim Collins writes in his book "How the Mighty Fall" the first 2 stages of fall are "Hubris" and "Undisciplined Pursuit of More". When you do that you lose focus of your vision.

To achieve success you need output focus only; process is not important, because it might only be a one-time success. But to be successful you must have a clear vision, actions to achieve the next step and robust underlying processes which can support the progression to the next step consistently.

Success without process is likely to be temporary - it is achieved by chance and cannot necessarily be sustained.

Why are We in Business?

Let’s apply this analogy to our businesses. Are we running like the hare or the tortoise? What is the purpose of our business?

The importance of answering this question is absolutely paramount. When things are unclear at the top – when there is no vision and nobody knows the purpose of the business – this filters down throughout the organization and results in poor performance, low employee morale and high attrition and loss of business. Figure 2 (below) depicts how this lack of vision makes its way through all levels of the organization:

Figure-2: How Many Businesses Operate Today

For those of us in charge of process improvement in a context like this, we can use all the tools available to us but our improvements won’t be sustained over the long term. Why? Because we are not clear "Why" we want to deploy "What" tool and "How". In today’s context, it is very important to understand the "Why", "What", "Where", "When" and "How" of growth and survival of our business.

So how do we do it? This leads us to define three clear loops in any organization:

  1. Behaviour Development Loop: This is part of the strategy development and deployment with respect to external factors. Top management understands the vision of the company by checking and understanding its core values and competences. By this managers define the next step required to move closer to the vision - just like the next step of the tortoise. Behaviour patterns are continuously developed and corrected with respect to changing external scenarios.
  2. Behaviour Synchronization Loop: This is part of the strategy deployment and execution initiation where both top and middle management work together. Middle management needs to synchronize behaviour with skills and knowledge; thus now the "Why", "What" and "How" becomes clear. The entire organisation senses a need, which is then supplemented through these tools. This is the initiation of Total Quality Management - or whatever discipline you may use - in the organization.
  3. Continuous Learning and Sustenance Loop: Once behaviours have been synchronized, the shopfloor management is aware "What" it needs, to work towards the next step. The question now is not, "What to do?", but "How to Do Efficiently and Effectively". This decides the Daily Work Management for the shopfloor people including continuous learning through PDCA from KPI and thus automatically sustains and improves.

Figure-3: Developing Organization towards Business Success

Working with a Direction

Like the Tortoise, nurture your vision and focus. Develop and synchronize the behaviors with skills and knowledge. Working without a direction is like trying to assemble a thousand puzzle pieces without knowing the big picture. You may use all the tools, but by the time you assemble the picture finally, the scenario would have changed completely. Are we adding value to our organizations? Or are we carrying our baggage from bottom to the top by trying to micro-manage? Do we want to have success?Or we want to be successful? Only you yourself can answer these questions.