On and off
The typical home in Canada has a thermostat to control a furnace. Each thermostat has a gap between how cold it can get before the furnace turns on and how warm it can get before the furnace turns off. The wider the gap the longer the furnace will run and the longer the time it will stay idle. Longer gaps tend to be more efficient since some energy is wasted heating up the ducts every time the furnace comes on. The downside is that the temperature varies from the comfortable setting chosen.
Design Thinking reminds us to seek multiple opportunities to compare the results of our efforts to the desires of our users.
The more often this is done, the less the work will stray from what is desired.
Putting this into practical terms, however, we can see that there is a balance to be sought. If my team is producing a new online service, for example, checking in with the user community every day would be a pointless intrusion. Very little meaningful work would have been completed and the users would become impatient.
Are we there yet?
The downside of an endless improvement cycle is that is, well, endless. How do you justify the ongoing costs of continually refining one offering when it limits the ability to pursue new projects?
There are two reasons to engage in endless improvement. One reason is that the gap between what is produced and what is needed is still unacceptably large. This criterion requires a well-defined objective. Once it’s met, the project can be considered accomplished.
The other reason is that the original conditions that underpinned the criteria have changed or continually change, such as competitive forces, changes to technology, legislative changes, etc. If this is the case then the work is not simply to correct deviations from the course, but to correct the course itself.
Be wary of momentum. An object in motion tends to stay in motion, and a team assembled tends to stay assembled. There has to be a collective agreement that some gap will always exist between what is and what is desired, just like with a thermostat. If that acceptable gap can be quantified, and if the measured gap is below that threshold, then the team is in maintenance mode, not improvement mode. Likely the team, or at least some of its members, can be re-tasked at this point.