On the Art of Small, Incremental Improvement - John C. Wunsch, P.C.
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On the Art of Small, Incremental Improvement

Simple tasks would at first glance seem to be resistant to dramatic improvement. They are routine, relatively uncomplicated, and the end result does not appear to be readily susceptible to noticeable change. After all, in how many different ways can a basic task be accomplished?

Small libraries have actually been written about this: everything from Bill Smith’s “Six Sigma” to W. Edwards Deming’s “Plan-Do-Study-Act.” Some recommend a purely statistical, numbers-based evaluation; others, a more process-oriented, client-focused approach. For service providers, such as lawyers, the task becomes a bit more complex since there are any number of variables––the particular judge or jury, one’s opponent, variation in the testimony of witnesses, the nature of the case, etc.––outside of one’s immediate control. Just about any contested legal case has any number of moving parts, any one of which can affect the outcome.

Take your standard deposition in, say, a car accident case. The basic facts––times, distances, speeds, locations, events, chronology––every lawyer will ask essentially the same questions. So how to separate yourself from others? How can your depositions––and in particular the questions asked and the answers received––become significantly better? One readily available skill to develop is questioning from multiple points of view––that of the Plaintiff, that of the Defendant, and that of a disinterested third party.

Or, outside of the legal context, take your standard skill, anything, say cleaning, cooking, or carpentry. How can the end result be made appreciably better? Standard advice would include the following: “Break the task down into components, and ask: what can be improved?” “Pay attention to details.” “Become an expert in your subject.” “Acquire through training and practice the skills needed to produce high-quality outcomes.” “Benchmark, keep records, assess and evaluate, seek out the ideas of others.” “From time to time alter the steps of your routine to encourage the chance of fortunate accidents.” “The end result is good, even excellent—now ask: what can make it better?”  Etc. These we’ve all heard, in some variation, before.

Another approach is actually a life style change: do nothing in your chosen field without first always asking––what small, incremental improvements can be made? Such a change should apply to both the large and small. Writes Tom Peters:

“It was a little thing. V-e-r-y little. Redesign a reporting format…for a mostly unread report…in the Pentagon in 1968. I always liked statistics. And I decided Why Not? (Perhaps boredom!) I decided I’d take the little assignment seriously. So I labored over it. To my surprise, some people v-e-r-y senior to me began to discuss the results of the redesigned and beefed-up document. And I decided this could be a hoot. (Best sense of that word.)  A year––and a dozen monthly iterations and refinements––later a large number of field operations were, in effect, being principally evaluated by my “little report.” Lesson I: The “little” report revision became…in the parlance I now use…a WOW! Project. Lesson II: (and this took much longer to learn): There are no non-WOW! Projects…if…you put your mind to it. The most trivial task can be turned into Something Very Cool…something that has Impact. An actor pal tells me there’s a saying in his trade: “There are no small parts, only small actors.” To which I would add: “There are no small tasks, only small imaginations.”[1]

Incremental improvement becomes meaningful when there’s actually a noticeable difference between standard practice and exceptional practice. Perhaps the first step is to recognize that even the smallest of tasks are susceptible to being improved, if enough imagination, energy, and attention are brought to bear. “We may have a perfectly adequate way of doing something, but that does not mean there cannot be a better way,” wrote Edward de Bono. “So we set out to find an alternative way. This is the basis of any improvement that is not fault correction or problem solving.” A small matter arises, something we take for granted, something routine––that’s the time to pause and begin searching: there may be a better way.

[1] Tom Peters, Reinventing Work: The Professional Service Firm 50, Pgs. 56-57 (Alfred A. Knopf 1999)



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