Seek Perfection
by Bruce Hamilton
Seek Perfection is the Flywheel. Defined by the Shingo Institute as “an aspiration not likely to be achieved but the pursuit of which creates a mindset and culture of continuous improvement,” Seek Perfection is the flywheel to endless daily improvement to goods and service to the customer. But the concept of perfection is elusive. For greater clarity, the Institute breaks the principle down into two key behavioral benchmarks.

  1. Mindset – We challenge our paradigms and expectations.
  2. Structure – We approach improvement in a structured way.

Mindset – We challenge our paradigms and expectations
Perfection can be viewed both as the result of our actions and also as the actions themselves. This is underscored by the first of the Three Insights of the Shingo Model: “Ideal results require ideal behavior.” For example, in baseball, a perfect game is one in which no opposing players reach first base for any reason. However, it also connotes the human endeavor that leads to the result, in this case, the performance of the nine players making many great plays. The ideal itself is daunting; while every team aspires to a perfect game, there have been only 23 of these in over a century. The odds of achieving this lofty ideal are roughly 1 in 50,000. In professional football, the perfect result is defined in a different context: a season and post-season with no defeats and no ties. Every season for the last 100 years, teams have aspired to this ideal, which in that time has been achieved only once.

So why seek perfection? Isn’t that a bit impractical, and perhaps even discouraging? In the words of legendary football coach Vince Lombardi, “. . . if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.” In other words, the chase “creates the mindset and culture of continuous improvement.” Ideal results and ideal behaviors exist in context of the systems to which they are applied. While the paradigms for perfection in baseball or football are well-defined, is there a more robust paradigm to which any organization can aspire? As the Institute notes, “the realization of what is possible is only limited by the paradigms through which one sees and understands the world.”

“True North is an image of the ideal; what we should do, not what we can do.” 
~ Hajime Ohba, General Manager Toyota Production System Support Center

In the 1990s, to answer this question for Toyota’s American suppliers, the Toyota Production System Support Center (TSSC) used the phrase “True North” to explain Toyota’s vision of the ideal condition. The idiom was selected because of its general connotation of the ideal, and also because, like Shingo Guiding Principles, of its universality: Regardless of an organization’s current condition in its pursuit of enterprise excellence, the “vision of the ideal,” as it was referred to by Hajime Ohba, General Manager of TSSC, is constant, focusing equally on the value provided to the customer and on the organizational culture that develops the providers of that value.

Customer Satisfaction. For customers, there are three absolute measures of perfection: 1) zero defects, 2) zero wastes, and 3) one-by-one production. These non-negotiable conditions prescribe “what we should do, not what we can do.” The ideal to produce the customers exact order immediately and with perfect quality may be, as the Shingo Institute notes, “an aspiration not
likely to be achieved,” but it is nonetheless perfection from the customer’s viewpoint. 

Human Development. Like the perfect game in baseball, perfect customer satisfaction implies not only the ideal result but also constant pursuit of perfection by every employee to provide that result: “Everyone, every minute, every day,” as described by the TSSC model. This means every employee – executives, managers, and team members – as active thinkers and problem solvers, utilizing techniques like SMED and Poka-Yoke pioneered by Dr. Shigeo Shingo. 

Many organizations have tried and failed to create the flywheel of improvement by engaging only a small subset of managers and subject matter experts. Executives and frontline employees receive only “awareness” training. The outcome is too few problem solvers crushed under the weight of too many problems. This approach is not sustainable and ultimately leads to disengagement by most employees. Creating an organizational culture that favors problem identification and develops every employee as a thinker and problem solver requires the creation of a culture where employees feel safe to surface problems and have been afforded the means to reduce waste in the process. As in the baseball analogy, the perfect game requires engagement of everyone on the team.

Structure – We approach improvement in a structured way
Regardless of industry, seeking perfection requires a stepwise approach, with each target for improvement building on current operating conditions and current improvement capabilities of the organization. Adhering to structure is essential to long-term success. For example, many years ago as a manufacturing VP, I initiated a set-up reduction project for my company’s CNC lathes. According to Dr. Shingo, “all set-ups can be reduced by 59/60,” which meant our setup times could be 1.5 minutes rather than 90. Using Shingo’s SMED recommendations, we succeeded in cutting set-ups down to around 45 minutes, mostly by getting tools, material, and information ready in advance of the set-up. After stalling at 45 minutes for several years, we requested assistance from TSSC to drive the set-up times closer to the Shingo ideal. In response to our request, we were visited by an industrial engineer from another TSSC project company. After interviewing the operators and observing set-ups for a week, she left me a single assignment: “The BNC (the CNC machine we chose for our set-up project) is not repeatable and needs an overhaul,” she said. “I’ll be back in three weeks.” I protested, “We can’t get this overhauled that fast.” Her response: “Well good luck then. I guess we’re done.” Our TSSC consultant understood something I had missed: You can’t improve an unstable process. I told her we would do our best to overhaul the machine in three weeks. With some difficulty, we hit the target. On her next visit, operator engagement with the project increased markedly. At the conclusion of her visit she left me eight pages of homework. Within three months of stabilizing our equipment, set-ups were reduced to 20 minutes and we recalibrated to measuring set-ups in seconds. At the 9-month mark, operators were able to changeover between any of 70 different parts in less than 9 minutes. With further work the team eventually achieved under five minutes! There were two lessons for me:

  1. Employee engagement begins with executive engagement. The mindset to seek perfection must be owned and lived by top managers. Once I understood what the team members already knew (machine was not true), we all became engaged. While operators may have an innate desire to improve, this can be quickly squelched, and even turned to spite, by disparagement from executives, managers, and supervisors.
  2. There is a natural structure to improvement. Whether we choose to accept or deny this aspect of Seek Perfection, there will be consequences. In this case, seeking perfection in changeover began with achieving stability, then standardization, and then kaizen.

Without an ideal condition to pursue, improvement by definition will be finite, as it, unfortunately, is for many organizations. Perhaps the most common complaint by Lean implementers is the difficulty in sustaining gains. Seeking perfection means committing to an ideal, “what we should do,” not just “what we can do,” and creating a structured approach in which executives, managers, and team members each play a necessary role. This principle creates a mindset of never-ending improvement that unlocks the “innate desire and capability” of every employee.
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