Patterns of Improvement


Here is a quick survey to gain an understanding of your experiences and points of view on the topic of improvement methodologies over the past few decades. There are nine questions. All readers will benefit from your knowledge if you post your answers and remarks as a comment to this blog. Thank you ahead of time for your contribution to the knowledge base.


I have worked on dozens of business performance improvement efforts with the management of some of the world’s leading firms. During that work I helped implement several improvement methods including quality circles, total quality management, natural work teams, work elimination, business reengineering, business transformation, six sigma, lean, and lean six sigma. Needless to say, there was a wide range of results.

This brief survey draws out your own experiences and learning from improvement initiatives with the intent of developing ways to improve improvement methods themselves. And responding to the survey helps build the collective knowledge of like-minded people.

Please take the time to participate and help other improvement practitioners.

Patterns of Improvement

Below you will see four patterns (plus a blank) which depict profiles of the effectiveness of improvement methods plotted against what I call the “intervention lifecycle”. Each pattern reflects a firm’s experience with any improvement method. Note that a maximum efficacy is reached in each pattern of improvement with varying speeds. The difference among the patterns is what happens after the maximum is reached.

  • Pattern A represents a true continuous and sustainable improvement method.
  • Pattern B shows a big bang upfront followed by a rapid falling off of results.
  • Pattern C depicts a slow decline of efficacy after reaching the maximum.
  • Pattern D waxes and wanes in a sawtooth profile after reaching maximum efficacy.
  • Pattern E is any other pattern you have experienced.


  1. Which patterns most closely resemble your experiences at companies with which you have worked either within the companies or as a consultant?
  2. What were those companies?
  3. Is there another pattern you have experienced that is not depicted?
  4. Why did you select the particular patterns you picked?
  5. What caused those patterns to emerge?
  6. What worked well?
  7. What do you think might have been done to improve the improvement methods being implemented at the time?
  8. What, if anything, had been done to ensure true sustainability (as in pattern A)?
  9. Any other comments you would like to add?

Thank you again for your participation.

4 responses to “Patterns of Improvement

  1. I’ll comment on question 3.

    The other pattern I observed was similar to “C.” However, after a prolonged decline there was a resurgence which brought the results line back to maximum. In 30 years of consulting I only observed it twice. In both cases the “rebirth” was driven by a change in executive management. The new management reverted back to the principles implemented during the intervention. In one case the executive was with the company in a subordinate role and was subsequently promoted. In the other situation an outsider was brought in who wholeheartedly subscribed and supported the implemented practices. It seems to me that some things remain the same, management is the tie breaker when we measure success.

  2. Which patterns most closely resemble your experiences at companies with which you have worked either within the companies or as a consultant? – C
    What were those companies? – container logistics, automotive OEM
    Is there another pattern you have experienced that is not depicted? – exponential growth
    Why did you select the particular patterns you picked?
    What caused those patterns to emerge? – solutions brought in by internal or external consultants, working in the “expert-mode” (as EdgarSchein would probably call it). Normal workforce was sort of “forced” to comply to changes. As soon as consultants are gone, the productivity falls back to old level.
    What worked well? – steady state improvements over a longer time, involving all stakeholders (also workers and office staff)
    What do you think might have been done to improve the improvement methods being implemented at the time? – getting into continious dialogue ( – not easy in established organizations based on hierarchy! A challenge with great impact -if done:-)
    What, if anything, had been done to ensure true sustainability (as in pattern A)? –
    Any other comments you would like to add? – leading thoughts on my blog;-)

  3. I am a non-consultant and have worked for only two companies over an extended period of time. I am also a big believer in Jim Collins and Good to Great. In his writings he covers the scenarios you have described. The pattern you describe in Pattern A are the great companies, which are defined by his characteristics of greatness: a level 5 leader, having great people on the right seat in the bus, having the ability to deal with one’s position — the brutal facts, developing the core competencies to be best in class (hedgehog), and moving the flywheel to gain the momentum for success. This is what Richard Macklin is describing with an intermission for the misguided leader, who might have succumbed to hubris and over confidence (Collins — Why Great Companies Fail).

    It comes down to having the right leader and the right culture. The best company that I have seen up close in this regard is Frito-Lay in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Not perfect, but pretty close with regards to critical, self-evaluation when by every objective measure at the time they were the clear leaders in consumer packaged goods. No hubris, limited pats on the back, but lots of what we can we do better.

  4. Over the years I have led and implemented many performance improvement programmes for organisations int he UK in a consultative role. My involvement has ranged from ad-hoc mentoring of key individuals over an extended period of time to improvement-process-based organisation-wide programmes, e.g. IDEAL. My speciality is software development process improvement so my answers are relative to this.

    1. I have seen A work in only very small organisations with continued involvement of a key change champion, usually a very keen CEO, and usually only in a startup company, i.e. where the culture to be changed hasn’t yet become ingrained. Even in this case there is usually a slow decline as bad practices start to creep in (organisations become complacent). I have never seen B or C, however a combination of B and C (C with a rounded peak), in my experience, is the norm. This is the case when the organisation believes that someone else can change their lack of efficiency (or whatever matters most to them) and they don’t recognise that they ultimately need to change themselves, albeit with some external help. Often, organisations do a couple of B+Cs and then either give up, or commit to something more long-term. I haven’t seen D either, except where it is B+C repeated as just described, i.e. it is irregular and doesn’t peak more than a few times. D is the profile of an organisation that practices continuous improvement, and sadly as a consultant I may never have the direct experience of one of these (usually only experienced by permanent staff and rarely!).

    2. The companies have been a complete mixture: private and public sector, medium-sized (200+) to large, startups to long-established, and in a wide variety of industry sectors. As stated, most improvements have been of one or more areas within the IT software development function.

    3. The pattern missing is the the slow but continuos improvement profile – A but without the initial step. This is the only continuous one I’ve experienced whereby improvement has happened “by stealth” rather than as the result of an improvement initiative. This has happened when the culture has been improved from within as a side-effect of the influx of enough individuals with better working practices and a continuous improvement ethic.

    4 & 5. Already covered.

    6, 7 & 8. Sustained improvement only works when improvement is ingrained in the culture. In my experience this only happens when the majority of people have direct experience of the gains from improvement and this in turn only happens when enough (of the right) people have been mentored for long enough. So, a significant element of mentoring over a long enough period of time is essential to sustainable improvement.

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