WHAT does it mean when a chief executive officer (CEO) says his company has successfully “streamlined” their production system? Ricky (not his real name) was responding to my social media post that explored one important strategy that we, Lean Thinkers, have learned from Japan’s famous industrial engineer and the much-revered Toyota icon Taiichi Ohno (1912-1990) who said: “The key is the timeline. It starts from the date of customer’s order up to supplier’s actual delivery of products or services. The goal is to reduce wastes and delay in the process so that the supplier can collect the payment right away.”

Ricky replied by boasting about his capacity to pay their suppliers on time even if he has not collected anything from his clients. In his industry, he claimed that the standard credit line is 30 days, but only a handful respect it. He’s a different breed. He’s doing a commendable act of helping his suppliers to survive, especially in this pandemic.

However, Ricky missed one point — the basic goal of remaining focused on perpetual waste reduction. What Ricky appears to be telling us is that — continuous waste reduction is unnecessary if and when we can pay our suppliers on time.

He claimed they’ve already “streamlined” their production system and suggests that they don’t need Ohno’s advice with their high-tech machine to cure their products compared to their competitors’ sun-drying process. Indeed, he missed the point. Lean thinking is about the use of practical, natural solutions instead of relying on a high-tech solution.

I wish I could ask him to elaborate, but I was afraid to start a discussion that could strain our professional relationship. My interest was to discover how he came up with a conclusion that he has already “streamlined” and to learn from it. I mean, what kind of intervention they’re doing to eliminate, if not reduce actual waste in his production system? And why would they resort to an expensive approach if there’s a free solution that is acceptable in the industry?

Illusion of perfection

Continued waste reduction is a universal principle. It applies to any kind of work we do whether one is in manufacturing or service sector. Shigeo Shingo (1909-1990), another famous guru on Lean Thinking, said in so many words that if we’ll to summarize would mean the following: “Our concept of waste is the same whether one is cooking rice cakes or making cars.”

The problem is that many of us are blinded by the illusion of perfection: Ricky is not alone.

I’ve interacted with a lot of CEOs and their managers who also claim they’ve streamlined their production system. Does it mean they’ve already discovered a perfect operation system? Does it mean they don’t need to improve on it? How’s that possible?

That’s the problem. It’s easy to be blinded by success as soon as we earn money from customers or as soon as we believe we’re paying our suppliers on time. But how long would that revenue stream lasts?

That’s why I would not hesitate telling people to be on a perpetual lookout for non-value adding systems and procedures that are could drain profitability in good or bad times.

Illusion of perfection can happen anytime, to anyone, regardless of circumstances. We can be blinded by our own success, no matter how temporary it appears to be. That’s why it’s important to understand the definition of perfection.

Oregon-based psychotherapist Bob Edelstein said: “Perfection is different for everyone. One person’s perception of a 50-percent effort can be everyone else’s perception of 100 percent.” In other words, what is perfect to you is not perfect to me. And vice-versa.

Forbes Council member Angela Civitella also claimed “perfectionism sets you up for failure. It drains you and causes you to think that you’ll achieve your goal, all the while being an illusion that’s only nurtured by how obsessed you are with the outcome.”

The illusion of perfection is best illustrated by “The Monkey Business Illusion,” a classic experiment done by cognitive psychologists Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris at Harvard University in the 1990s. Since then, there have been many versions that came out with the same lessons repeated over and over. Stop here. Watch “The Monkey Business Illusion” on YouTube to discover what you and Ricky are missing before continuing with the rest of this article.

What’s missing?

Let’s be suspicious when he hear people saying they’ve already perfected something. They don’t know what they’re doing. You can only do excellence, but not perfection. And when you’re comfortable, you begin to deteriorate because you don’t know what you don’t know, including a passing gorilla, a team member leaving a game, or a curtain changing its color.

Pay attention to what’s invisible, in the same manner when you’re trying to see the visible. Listen to the sound of silence as much as you do when you react to firecracker noises. Check your peripheral vision, not just the center of your attention. Think of the unthinkable. Discover what you can do with the impossible. Sometimes, you’ll know that it’s not really impossible but only difficult things that are lurking beneath your line of sight.

Selling a product or service is not enough to be profitable. People and organizations must constantly look for wastes and eliminate them. Indeed, Shingo was right when he said: “The most dangerous kind of waste is the waste that we don’t recognize.”

Rey Elbo is a business consultant specializing in human resources and total quality management as a fused expertise. Send feedback to [email protected] or via https://reyelbo.consulting.