Years ago on Halloween I took my son Garrett visit our neighbors. He went up to every door and said, “Trick or treat!” This is what every kid was saying at every door. It was the ordinary thing to do. I tried to give the routine a different slant.
“Why don’t you try something different?” I said. “Go up to a door and say, ‘Hello, I hope you are having a wonderful evening.’ I’ll bet that before the night is over you’ll get twice as much candy as anyone else.”
Garrett told me what he thought of my idea, and the comments were not exactly enthusiastic. A few minutes later, I mentioned it again, and he said, “OK, fine, I’ll do it.” What that meant was “I’ll do it and show you how good your dumb idea is!” He walked to the next door totally disgusted. He came back disgusted. He held up a single candy bar and said, “See, one candy bar, just like every other house!” That was the end of that.
Garrett was going through the first and only routine he had ever learned for getting candy on Halloween. The routine was working and it never crossed his mind to ask himself if he could be more effective. This reminded me of an executive experience.
Running an organization, I noticed a problem. My people were drowning in their own routines. They mindlessly repeated the routines regardless of the level of effectiveness. It became clear that I needed to create a culture of continuous improvement.
I began by questioning the effectiveness of some of their most basic patterns. They found this shocking. I then showed them a picture of a smiling young man running in a huge hamster wheel. I asked, “Why is this person smiling when he is going nowhere at all?” We had a lively discussion. Soon a new phrase popped up in the organization, they referred to the hamster wheel as the “rat cage.” They would say, “Last week was a rat cage week, I have to rethink what I am doing.”
I next asked each one of them to send me their best new practice for each week. I then collected the practices and sent them back out. Then I began to ask people what practices they adapted from the list. After a couple of months they began to really attend to the list. They began carefully reading and experimenting. At the end of six months we had a culture of continuous improvement.
Do I personally hunger for continuous improvement?
Do I question the effectiveness of my routines?
How could we use this passage to become a more positive organization?