When
planning improvement, remember geometry, March 2, 2008, 3D.

The Pythagorean
theorem states that for a right triangle, the square of the length of the hypotenuse is
equal to the sum of the squares of the other two lengths.
For a triangle with two sides that measure three and four units, the
hypotenuse will equal five units. The square
of three (nine) plus the square of four (16) equals the square of five (25). The hypotenuse will always be shorter than the sum
of the lengths of the other two sides.

From the work of W.
Edwards Deming came the ideas of Total Quality Management (TQM). TQM is a management philosophy and method used in
production settings and is concerned with producing high-quality products. Many of Deming’s ideas about creating quality
and high-performance organizations have been extended and applied to areas beyond
production. One of the central ideas of his
methodology is the notion of “continuous improvement.”

Continuous
improvement is concerned with on-going and gradual changes in the ways of production and
work. Making small and incremental changes
over time can result in big changes in the long run.
When change is continuous and gradual over time, less effort is needed at
any point in time than what would be required for a radical and drastic change over a
short time period. And at any point in time,
an organization that is continually improving and “moving up” is performing
better than one that continues in an original course of action and changes only
periodically and drastically.

Anyone who has
pulled a washing machine up the ramp of a moving truck on a dolly, as opposed to
physically picking it up and lifting it into the back of a truck, can appreciate the help
that a ramp provides. Each step up a ramp
raises the load gradually to the level of the truck.
Wheeling a heavy load on the ground from the end of the ramp to the back of
a truck and then lifting it into the truck requires more distance moved and much more
exertion on the lift.

A trip up the
hypotenuse of a triangle is shorter than a trip down one side, stopping and turning 90
degrees at the right angle, and then moving up the other side. With all else held equal, the distance, time, and
energy needed to move at right angles is greater than moving on the hypotenuse.

Deming’s
notion of continuous improvement is equivalent to gradually moving up the hypotenuse of a
triangle; like moving up a ramp. Discontinuous
change, or radical change, is analogous to proceeding down one side of a triangle without
any change, stopping and changing directions at the right angle, and then restarting and
continuing in a new direction. And as with a
heavy load that has to be lifted into a truck, the change and movement from the right
angle to the end of the second side can be very difficult for those involved in the
change.

When planning for
organizational change, remember your geometry!

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