A Goal isn’t a Finish Line

I was going over some productivity numbers with a long term client.

“Remember when our goal for this was 2000 man hours?” he said. “Now we are below 1200, and closing in on 1100, and with greater volume!”

Everywhere we looked his numbers were at levels we couldn’t have imagined 10 years ago. I don’t mean numbers he couldn’t have hit back then, but numbers we literally couldn’t have imagined. Some of it is the result of investments in technology, in better systems and in training.Most of it, however, is because he has developed a culture of always, always looking for the next improvement.

Note well that I said he has developed a culture. This business has about 100 employees. As the owner, he knows full well that he is not capable of setting a target and dragging every one of those 100 people to it. He has developed an expectation, at least among his management, that arriving at a goal is merely setting the starting point for the next goal.

I’ve been thinking about how unusual that is.For most small business owners goals are a normal part of managing our companies. Sales goals, production goals, efficiency goals. We work hard to make them, set employee incentives around them, and celebrate when we achieve them. But very few of us start immediately on the next goal. We want to give our people (and ourselves) a break. We are programmed to let people enjoy the achievement; to rest a bit before we start again.

I commented on how unusual it is to have built an organization where the key people look at a goal as merely proof that they can do what they set out to do, and automatically start thinking about what they can focus on next. He smiled, and related a story.

Last week one of his managers had a performance review with an employee. Not surprisingly, performance reviews are a normal and regular part of their business culture. They aren’t avoided, late, skipped or glossed over. They are an expected part of the manager’s job. They, too, have evolved over the years. They are more frequent and more detailed than they used to be.

This employee had been doing a good job. He was dependable, and skilled at his duties. He was an important part of the team, and handled his area of responsibility without problems. None the less, his supervisor had identified a half dozen areas where there was room for improvement. These were listed as goals, with a time frame for their accomplishment.

The employee didn’t object to the content of the goals. He was very unhappy that they existed at all. I’ve done everything you ever asked.” he exclaimed. “I am here every day. I cover all my responsibilities to the letter. I’ve hit every target you’ve ever given me. But you people are never happy. You always want more. I’m tired of it.”

He resigned.

Replacing him wasn’t going to be easy. Training another employee for his responsibilities would take considerable time and effort. The supervisor was faced with a choice between keeping a position covered well, or starting all over with someone new. It wasn’t really a choice. The supervisor informed his manager that the position would be weaker for some time while a new person was brought up to speed. Allowing an employee to opt out of the culture of improvement simply wasn’t an option.

How many of us have the courage to push our employees past “good enough?” How many have given our subordinates the license to tell us that they need to take a step back before they can take two steps forward? In my presentation on “The 7 Sins of an Entrepreneur” we talk about the sin of Sloth as settling for good enough, because the alternative just takes too much effort. Settling for good enough launches a creeping decay in you business. If one employee can hold a position because he or she is just good enough, then why not two? Why not all of them? Eventually you wind up with a company where everything is merely good enough.

The Japanese call it Kaizan, the constant push for improvement. Americans want to take big leaps. We look for giant increases, then fall back until we marshal our strength for another big push. Kaizan is the discipline of looking at everything, all the time, to see how it could be better.

Building a culture where a goal becomes not the finish line but a starting point, takes time and consistency. It isn’t easy but the results, like the progression of the goals themselves, are incredible.

You probably figured this out already, but this company enjoys a level of profitability that most people in their industry would consider impossible to achieve. They, however, consider it a baseline for their next goal.

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