An improvement team at my client was struggling to get started on their experiment. They spent nearly a month interviewing people in multiple functions, trying to understand all the possible permutations of the current condition. They discovered that it’s really, really complicated. 

And that made it difficult to start improving the process. Trying to get all the pieces in place for their first experiment was laborious—so many moving pieces, so many people to include, so many variations to consider. 

No surprise there. Office processes are notoriously intertwined. You’re about as likely to find a problem confined to a single functional silo as you are a copy of the National Enquirer in the Library of Congress.  

Which is why it’s good to start improvement projects with small steps. Mike Rother suggests that initial Toyota Kata experiments should be sized for completion in about two to three weeks. Any more than that, and the complexity of the change outweighs the improvement skill level of the people making the change. 

Equally important, if the experiment goes on for too long, it runs the risk of becoming yet another time-sucking, dispiriting corporate project with undefined benefits in the indefinite future. That’s no way to get people excited about improvement.

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People are animals. They crave rewards as much as your dog wants a Milk Bone. As Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer show in their book The Progress Principle, the gratification that comes from forward progress—no matter how small—is a powerfully motivating reward in and of itself.  When an experiment is too big and takes too long, people don’t get that emotional reward. And that makes the long continuous improvement journey feel like a life sentence in a salt mine rather than an inspiring walk in broad and sunlit uplands

This improvement team has just recalibrated. The process they’re trying to improve is still complex, crossing over multiple functional silos. But now they’re just taking a small piece of it, and are expecting results in a couple of weeks. 

They’re very excited. 

Start small. Move fast.