The Power of Hope in Improvement

I love how conversations can challenge one’s thinking and spark new ideas. Interviews—for a new job, a board position, or with the media—are particularly rich opportunities to stretch your mental muscles and discover what you really believe. And sometimes you can be very surprised by where the conversation takes you.

One such surprise occurred for me during a recent podcast with LeanBlog’s Mark Graban about my latest book, Value Stream Mapping (with co-author Mike Osterling). Around 26 minutes into the podcast, the conversation turned to how powerful value stream maps are in illuminating the truth about current work systems and how invigorating it is when people see that they can actually fix the problems that have been creating organizational drag.

This led me to share a revelation I had had a day earlier about the vital role that hope plays in the improvement process: “Part of what the transition phase between the current state and future state is about is giving people hope. We don’t talk about hope in business circles. But when people are beaten down and frustrated with the amount of chaos that they deal with day in and day out, hope is a great antidote to resistance [to change]. And hope is the way forward.”

Now lest you think that topic’s excessively “squishy,” I went on to say: “Of course, it [hope] has to be followed by execution, but I think hope is a good place to start.” Mark added: “When people start to see the possibility, it’s great to see how people start to turn from despair to optimism.”

Indeed. I’ve long believed that improvement results are largely dependent on establishing success-oriented mindsets and preconditions, but considering the role of hope and optimism in solving problems and transformation organizations creates rich new territory for us to explore.

It’s been two months since we recorded the podcast and, in that time, I’ve visited six different clients. I’ve been paying particular attention to mindsets and looking for patterns around degrees of hope. I’ve also experimented with using hope to stimulate more innovative thinking. It seems to be working. Improvement teams at the last three clients have designed future state that have far exceeded any of the teams I’ve led in the past 20 years of being in business.

In the most dramatic case, a team has designed a future state that’s projected to deliver the following results:

  • Lead time reduction from 17 months to 7.5 months (56% improvement)
  • Freed capacity equivalent to 22 FTEs (full-time equivalents). Note: No layoffs will occur.
  • $25 million in freed working capital (annualized)

Time will tell how close this client comes to their projections (see Chapter 4 in Value Stream Mapping for information on calculating projected results), but I’m placing money on them. Their ability to achieve this dramatic level of improvement exists, in large part, because they had high levels of hope going into the transformation cycle they’re now in.

They also possessed high levels of three additional psychological levers that I’ve found are preconditions to making significant improvement:

  • Will — To succeed in improvement, you have to WANT to improve. All too often I see organizations whose actions don’t match their words. If you want to lose weight, but you’re not willing to become more active or alter your food intake, you’re not going to see any results. And merely checking a box (yay, I thought about weight loss!) isn’t going to move the scale’s needle at all. You either want it or you don’t. It’s disrespectful to all parties involved to approach improvement with no demonstrable will.
  • Belief — You have to BELIEVE that improvement is possible. While facilitating teams, I often sense their waning belief that they can create the future condition that they desire. But as Theodore Roosevelt said, “Believe you can and you’re halfway there.” (Hat tip to @dirkhinze for Tweeting this quote over the weekend.) Obviously the organization needs to commit to improvement upfront (including the proper resources to make improvement) or a team’s lack of belief will be well-earned. But a skilled facilitator can build belief in a team who will otherwise fall prey to disbelief.
  • Courage — Making change of any sort is difficult. The more complex the improvement and the more people it touches, the more difficult it is. It takes a healthy dose of COURAGE and intestinal fortitude to successfully transform a culture and its work systems.  You need courageous leadership and courageous team members. You have to be willing to let leaders with outdated paradigms and management styles go. You have to be willing to have your Board, Congress, or Wall Street breathing down your neck when you opt for a measured approach to improvement. You have to be willing to go against the grain.

But underlying all of these is HOPE. Hope for a better tomorrow. Hope for less stress and frustration. Hope for shorter work days and more time with family. Hope for processes that don’t require heroics to succeed. Hope for customers who want to come back again and again and sing your praises to prospective customers.

It’s our job as leaders, improvement professionals, business management consultants, and academics to take a hard look at hope and do all we can to deliver on it. When you feel the visceral shift in a team as hope emerges, see physical changes that reflect that shift, and hear the verbal evidence that hope has indeed arrived, THAT’S when the magic happens.

It certainly takes a lot more than hope to get results. But hope is a damn good place to start.

To listen to the podcast referenced:

Photo by Tracey Clark. Reprinted with permission.


by Mike Sporer reply

One of my pet attributes people in organizations need is persistence, Karen. Hope seeds persistence. Great article!

    by Karen Martin reply

    Hi Mike – Yes, persistence seems to be fleeting in many organizations, in large part due to distractions and, well, improvement can be hard work. Hope creates a foundation for lower resistance as long as there’s follow-through. With a pattern of no follow-through comes dashed hopes and cynicism. Tough to turn that ship around so best not to create the possibility. Thanks for commenting.

by Mike Sporer reply

Karen – I am a board member at a non-profit with a great ED who insists on and exhibits follow-through. I’ve seen both sides of that!


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