Continuous Incremental Improvement

bjorn-karlsson

It seems that common sense1 sometimes stand in the way of progress. Why? Because when we evangelize about the deceptively simple concept of Continuous Incremental Improvement, a lot of people shrug their shoulders and say “well, that’s just common sense, innit?” Let’s back up for a second and look at the core concept.

Continuous Incremental Improvement, hereafter referred to as CII2 or 1023, is an extension of a very straightforward learning protocol. Evaluate the situation. Formulate a goal. Take a step towards it. Repeat.

 music-repeat

But of course! Everyone understands that if you take one step at a time, you will eventually reach your destination. That’s just common sense, innit? Actually, no4. First of all, we need to update the protocol and formulate a positive goal. The rationale comes later.

Positive goal-setting is a big issue for most of us – we spend so much time on error correction that we’re inclined to choose goals from the problem domain. “I’m going to lose twenty pounds in four weeks and stop being so unhealthy5” instead of “I’m going to live healthier”. Three things to note here:

  1. “Losing twenty pounds” is one goal and “stop being unhealthy” is another. “A goal” should by definition be singular6. (4 weeks7 is a time constraint and shouldn’t even be mentioned here.)
  2. “Losing twenty pounds” and “stop being unhealthy” are perceived by the brain as negative and defensive goals. Also, it’s clearly not the true goal – for example, you could reach it by cutting of a leg or get rid of some muscles, but that’s most likely not what you wanted to achieve.
  3. “I’m going to live healthier” is not only a positive goal, it’s also measured on a sliding scale which means it will remain valid even as the baseline changes during evaluation. Quantification (such as twenty pounds) is a target, not a goal, and should not be mixed into the goal. A goal like “live healthier” will also call you out on your true intentions. If what you really want is to “look even better than today”, you’ll feel uncomfortable with the healthiness goal and can change it.

In essence, I am claiming that the best positive goals are in fact descriptions of progression rather than end states. We often get this wrong. “Grow the revenue by 100% in one year”, “Acquire a million new customers this quarter”,  “Increase NPS by 5” – they are all typical goal formulations in businesses, yet in fact they are combinations of goal (grow the business), target (by 100%), and constraint (in one year). While targets and constraints change constantly as reactions to contextual influences, good positive goals do not.

Getting back to core CII, let’s talk about taking steps toward the goal. We need to evaluate potential activities to ensure they move us in the right direction. For example, will “eating less candy” support the goal of “living healthier”? Sure it will, but we have to know how much to aim for. A single step towards the goal needs a complete plan – it has to be quantified, otherwise it’s no longer a step8, it has to be constrained in time, otherwise you don’t know when to evaluate, and it needs a baseline, otherwise it cannot be measured in relative terms as part of the cyclic process. For example, “I’ll only eat candy on Fridays and Saturdays” is not enough to formulate a step, because you could eat two pounds each day and that might take you further away from the goal. “I’ll only eat candy on Fridays and Saturdays, maximum one pound in total”, works great. In fact, it will also help you establish a baseline in a single week, which means you’ll have a natural evaluation on a weekly cadence!

Excellent, seems like we’re almost done with the process. Evaluating the situation is something we’re quite good at. Check. We know how to formulate a singular, positive goal. Check. We understand how to take steps towards it. Check. All that remains is to repeat all the steps and suddenly we are executing a repeatable self-regulated process guided by external benchmarking. Variations of this algorithm are often used to create software agents capable of navigating unknown environments and adapt depending on the situation. This is a form of intelligence, distilled into a simple formula that anyone can follow. There’s just one small problem. It doesn’t work.

There is a critical component missing in our algorithm, and it’s connected to a fundamental cornerstone of neuroscience9 – habits. Created and repeated in the basal ganglia, one of the more primitive parts of our brains, habits are learned and subsequently unconsciously repeated, effectively short-circuiting reasoning and other processor-intense functions of the brain. It’s a fantastic mechanism but also the sworn enemy of change; which happens to be the basis for our learning algorithm. Without change, there is no way we can create incremental improvement, we can just retain the status quo. So instead of fighting this basic function of our minds, we use it. With positive reinforcement of our actions, we are able to accomplish two things:

  • Forming a new habit (with a cue to trigger it, a routine that is repeated, and a reward the serves to strengthen the power of the habit)
  • Reshaping existing habits (same cues, new routines, new rewards)

the-habit-loop

Here’s the reason why it’s so important to select a positive goal; it makes it much easier to create positive reinforcement10, which is absolutely critical for the change to become habitual. And just to be clear – if it doesn’t become habitual, repetition won’t happen because the basal ganglia will soon be triggered by situational stimuli that your mind has encountered several times before, and it will then revert to earlier behavior. Strangely, this effect doesn’t just apply to people. It also works for teams, organizations, and cultures. Whether it’s a personal goal such as living healthier, finding a better job, or running faster, or if it’s an organizational goal of increasing profits, delivering better products, having more fun at work – the same mechanism applies universally.

So, in order to make our artificial intelligence algorithm useful for our purposes, we combine it with the neuro-scientific requirements of the brain. And we end up with these five steps.

Evaluate the situation. Formulate a positive goal. Take a step towards it. Reinforce success. Repeat.

That’s the basic CII algorithm. Use it with caution, for it has the power to unleash your full potential.

Makes sense, dunnit?

Footnotes:

1. For the purposes of this text, let’s agree to define “common sense” as something that most people would typically understand or do, based on associative (experience-based) and cognitive (calculation-based) functions. For statistical evidence of common sense that actually makes sense, I hereby challenge you to find a sufficiently large sample set.
2.
 The TLA version (Three Letter Acronym)
3.
 The RNT version (Roman Numerals Trick)
4.
 I had to cut the evidence for this disagreement from the text, so you’ll have to take my word for it.
5.
 Whether you can relate or not is obviously dependent on your situation, but I know the demographics of my readership quite well.
6.
 There’s nothing wrong with having more than one goal, but compound goals should be avoided – they are part of a strategy, which also requires some other components.
7.
 Usually the time between now and an upcoming swimming suit situation.
8.
 Discrete mathematics to the rescue!
9.
 You would do well to remember that the word science is more or less a tool I use to my advantage in rhetorical situations, which is implicitly demonstrated in this text by not providing any references or sources.
10.
 For our living healthier goal, we combine the hard success (we followed our candy plan) with the soft success (we feel great after eating less candy) and give ourselves a great mental pat on the back.

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4 comments on “Continuous Incremental Improvement
  1. blakeevans says:

    “The only way to get to Day 500 is to start with Day 1. So forget about the number and focus on doing the work.” – James Clear (http://jamesclear.com/new-habit). I, myself, had been duped into believing that a habit forms in 21 days. Nevertheless, I like the quote of starting with Day 1. Similar to “Put one foot in front of the other”.

    • Bjorn Bjorn says:

      Absolutely! I don’t say there’s anything wrong with waiting for New Year’s Eve, or the beginning of the month, or your birthday, for taking the next step. But I strongly believe that you can increase your chances of success by just doing it. One step at a time.

  2. Ling says:

    Great advice, thank you! Reminds me of clicker training that we practice with our dog at home! Didn’t think it could apply to humans also but makes alot if sense… if the human will be as discipline to herself as she is to her dog, that is:)

    • Bjorn Bjorn says:

      I like the analogy very much. In fact, I am working on an article called “Treat yourself like a dog”, which includes a click training of sorts, and a very useful mental trick.

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