‘We are too busy to improve’ – really?

A recent experience drove me to reflect on why people feel too busy to make the time for improvement. I wondered on the 'true cost' of firefighting and the lost opportunities out there of staying in the paradigm of 'too busy to improve'. Article by Chris Lawson


Recently I was facilitating an Improvement Activity, at the end of the first day I saw some resistance from the team as they felt they were too busy to continue to spend time on this improvement work. The team admitted that they wanted to improve things, and it was evident that their leadership wanted their involvement as they had hand-picked the team members. However, some of the team struggled with the notion of how to make time for improvement Recently I was facilitating an Improvement Activity, at the end of the first day I saw some resistance from the team as they felt they were too busy to continue to spend time on this improvement work. as they told me that they were already ‘run off their feet’.

As the week progressed and the root cause of the problem started to be addressed, the team quickly saw that they were able to free up time within their current work load. Furthermore, since they had solved this initial set of problems, they now had the capability to free up more time to work on more improvements. I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the team for sticking with the lean processes and tools which ultimately helped them create the capacity to identify and permanently remove waste from their work.

When reflecting on the resistance I had experienced, it is interesting to think of all the occasions when I have heard ‘we are too busy to make improvements’. This is intriguing as I have never heard people saying, ‘we are too busy for fire-fighting’.

This fire-fighting occurs because leaders in the organisation instruct their staff to ‘just do their job’, and they must respond to customer demands in the way the organisation always has done, by working harder to meet the immediate requirement. This behaviour simply encourages staff to become fire-fighters. In the short-term this approach may solve todays problems but what is the ‘true cost’ of fire-fighting for the organisation? The same problem is likely to occur again and the organisation will spend more time and resource fighting a similar fire for a second or third time.

To encourage your teams to overcome working in a fire-fighting environment, shouldn’t we provide time for proactive improvement work to prevent fires? Give your staff time to not just put the fire out, but also understand how to prevent the next one, as the leader who instigated the improvement activity I facilitated had done.

And finally to develop and embed a culture of continuous improvement we need to ensure we do not reward our staff that put out visible fires in a short term fashion, instead reward and promote those who prevent fires and catastrophes from occurring the in the first place.