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DEMYSTIFYING THE PURSUIT OF PERFECTION

Understanding the 5th Principle of Lean Methodology

By Christopher Lee

The term perfection is defined as “the state of being complete and correct in every way”. In this literal definition, the concept of perfection can be erroneously perceived as an unobtainable objective, causing it to be rejected.  However, the Pursuit of Perfection, the 5th principle in lean methodology is not meant to be a paralyzing ultimatum, but instead a powerful concept that advocates the adoption of continuous improvement.

The Cons of “Perfection”

In the context of organizational process improvement, if the interpretation of perfection is taken to its literal extreme, it becomes more harmful than beneficial by causing either perfection paralysis or perfection fixation.

Perfection paralysis happens when every idea that falls short of perfection is seen as a “fail”, which then becomes a roadblock to action or forward momentum in developing improvements to current state processes.  When there is a belief that only an incredible, awe-inspiring method change can enhance a process, anything less than that magic silver bullet gets rejected.

Perfection fixation refers to ignoring the law of diminishing returns.   When the pursuit of perfection becomes a mission to do anything at any cost to bring a process to a perfect end-state, there will inevitably come a tipping point where the amount of time and effort invested begins to outweigh the benefits gained.  Once that line is crossed, an effort will begin to increasingly outweigh the benefits, until the returns will be diminished to insignificance.  Simply put, it is the problem of not knowing when to stop.

This dichotomy has an insufficient effort on one hand and excessive effort on the other, but both leading to the same unsatisfactory results.  The happy medium lives in the 5th principle of Lean methodology, where the pursuit of perfection is defined as an ongoing process rather than an end goal, whose target is continuous process improvements rather than a final state of perfection.

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Breaking Down the “Pursuit of Perfection”

The 5th principle of Lean methodology essentially tackles behavior.  Its focus is a continuous improvement mindset that organizations need to adopt into their culture.  In Lean, the first four principles (define value, map the value stream, create flow, establish pull) must be completed in sequence before the continuous improvement approach of the 5th principle can be implemented.   The values and mindset of change management that are required to successfully adopt the 5th principle comes from the practice and completion of the first four.

The five principles follow a cycle format because completing them is not a one-time exercise.  This is a dynamic methodology, not a static model.  Similarly, the pursuit of perfection is not a destination, but a mindful journey of continuous improvement.  

The 5th Lean principle is the pursuit of perfection not the pursuit of perfection.