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The following article was written by Coleman Patterson and appeared in the Business section of the Abilene Reporter-News.

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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2006, 2007, 2008  Coleman Patterson, All Rights Reserved