A Look at “Seek Perfection”

by Ken Snyder

“Seek Perfection” is a principle in the Continuous Improvement dimension of the Shingo Model. It is the principle that best describes that dimension because it embodies the purpose of the dimension, while the other principles in the dimension describe how to improve. This is the principle that best gets to the heart of the spirit of kaizen that it is something that “everybody” does, that happens “everywhere” in the organization, and happens “everytime” (or all the time), as Shingo Academy member Imai Masaaki sensei so eloquently explains. This is the principle which drives all of us on our quest to improve!

Suggestions

Several people have suggested improvements to the wording of this principle – perhaps more people have weighed in on this principle than any other. The suggestions are remarkably similar – and simple. Several people have suggested changing the first word from “seek” to “pursue.” Several people have suggested changing the second word from “perfection” to “excellence.” A few have suggested changing the second word to “improvement.” The combination of words leaves the following six options:

  • Seek Perfection (current wording)
  • Seek Excellence
  • Seek Improvement
  • Pursue Perfection
  • Pursue Excellence
  • Pursue Improvement

“Seek” or “Pursue”?

The reason to support “pursue” instead of the current “seek” is that “pursue” is more purposeful. In many cultures, the use of the word “seek” often is accompanied by an implication that one will also find. But even the most experienced Lean leaders report that you never find. The improvement effort isn’t about the finding but rather the quest. The common dictionary definition of “seek” supports this – “to try to find or obtain.”

On the other hand, the word “pursue” carries with it an implication of a quest. The most common definition is the hunter in pursuit of prey. We have extended that meaning to fit similar pursuits. A common definition found in the dictionary is “to strive to accomplish a purpose.” The change to the word “pursuit” is supported by the slogan adopted by Toyota for their Lexus brand of “The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection.”

We are persuaded by these arguments and will support a change from “seek” to “pursue.”

“Perfection,” “Excellence,” or “Improvement”?

“Improvement” does not describe the overarching purpose of the quest. The word is better used in describing the dimension.

The reasons to support “excellence” instead of the current “perfection” are:

  • “Perfect” is too often the enemy of better. Too often we hear people say they haven’t implemented an improvement yet because they haven’t yet figured out how to do it “perfectly.”
  • “Perfect” does not necessarily mean “excellent.” For example, a person can pay their taxes “perfectly,” in that they can pay the exact amount, with no errors on the form. But it may take too many hours to complete the form. It usually is a depressing experience. Despite being “perfect,” it is far from “excellent.”

The reason to support “perfection” instead of “excellence” is simple – how can we accept anything less than perfect? How can we accept anything less than a “perfect” landing every time a jet lands? How can we accept anything less than “perfect” in healthcare? Even if we have achieved some vague degree of “excellence,” how can accept excellence that falls short of perfection?

Our namesake, Dr. Shingo Shigeo, was a relentless advocate of perfection. He argued for the perfect elimination of defects by teaching the world pokayoke (error-proofing). He argued for the perfect elimination of waste and inventory through one-piece flow, or, as Shingo called it, “non-stock production.”

The Proposal

Pursue Perfection. We’re on a quest. The quest is to be perfect in the value-added activities we pursue. This is not a “perfection” that resembles how one pays taxes. And we will not let the pursuit of perfect prevent us from making improvements as we go – even if we haven’t figured out what perfect looks like yet.

 

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3 thoughts on “A Look at “Seek Perfection””

  1. A risky business contradicting someone with Ken’s knowledge and experience however, here goes: the dictionary verbiage for ‘pursue’ says “to follow someone or something”, which to me does not say ‘try to catch or surpass’ thereby potentially giving a passive connotation. Arguably when coupled with “perfection”, this somewhat changes the overall context but I am struggling to find a compelling argument that says we should change something that has been very successful so far – is this change for the sake of change ?

    1. It’s ultimately not the verbiage that has allowed for the success of this principle “Seek Perfection”. It’s an understanding of the purpose and intent, connecting them back to desired behaviors. Those desired behaviors being continual, culturally ingrained, requiring something more than a destination mindset.

      To make my point I’ll share some of my current challenges at work. With our Operational Excellence framework we have set explicit goals for perfect execution of our methodology. We have defined the destination and attached that as perfect with a timeline for when to accomplish perfection. Yet we truly don’t understand perfection due to an exclusive tools method for improvement. No principles or systems.

      Continuous improvement, although a serious of events with defined start and finish dates, continuous improvement and the spirit of Kaizen cannot have definite completion dates if we are to create and sustain the desired culture for Operational Excellence.

      The name needs to change to better reflect a purpose contrary to a destination and definite event mindset. This is an on going journey.

  2. In 1991 I was working at Otis Elevators at Nogales, Son, Mexico and we had the opportunity to have direct coaching by C. Nakao, S. Niino and S. Niwa, which was an excellent learning experience as well as process improvement exercise … the company leadership -George David- and those japanese gentlemen asked, directed, demanded “perfection” in literal sense of the word. George told us “your goal is to be the best manufacturing plant of the world, nothing less, or look for another job”.

    The team worked very hard (and smart as well) guided by the japanese team, and finally in short term (about one month) we could get to the goal.

    I have been told for some people that it cannot be done, but we did it. The first step to get it is to believe it can be done (or the boss of your boss of your boss…) demanding that or you get fired, to get strong motivation and then do what we are supposed to do: identify and eliminate wastes (not reduce, but eliminate), simple as that.

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