“Improvement must be focused on what you want, not on what you don’t want.” Russell Ackoff

Many executives who are engaged in leading improvement initiatives like lean six sigma or operational excellence, are focused on eliminating defects and waste. They mistakenly believe that removing defects and waste lead to improving the performance of their company. But removing defects and waste, does not automatically mean you get what you want!


A case in point is Motorola who relentlessly removed defects from their manufacturing processes, and the design of their pagers in the late 1980s and early 1990s using their Six Sigma approach. To their amazement their own market surveys showed that customer satisfaction did not improve and customers chose other manufacturers because they liked their design better. Motorola executives had defined improvement as reducing defects (“something you don’t want”). They had failed to think about what success would look like for Motorola from the customers' point of view.

Lost-time-injury rate reduction made things unsafe

In another example I worked with an industrial company who wanted to improve their safety record. This was measured by tracking the lost-time-injury rate (LTIR). The focus was on driving down the lost-time-injury rate. This seems logical, but notice that the focus is on what you don't want (lost time due to injuries). The pressure on reducing the lost-time-injury rate, led to an unwillingness by the employees to report injuries. They did not want to be seen as the employees who were spoiling the bonuses of their managers. Ironically this led to not reporting of injuries. While the LTIR went down, the work environment became more unsafe. This was exactly the opposite of what management intended to achieve. But it was a logical outcome of focusing on what you don't want.

All of this goes back to the basic axiom that Russel Ackoff presents:

“Improvement must be focused on what you want, and not on what you don’t want!"

"This can be easily proven,” he says. And this example draws on one of his lectures. “What are the chances if you switch on the TV that you get a program you like?” Ackoff figured out it is about 1 percent. “So if you switch the TV on and you have a program you don’t like - a defect - you can get rid of it by switching to another station. What is the chance you get a program you like? Again, it is only 1 percent. Focusing on what you don’t want and eliminating it, does not necessarily give you what you do want!” So if you want to improve, you need to focus on what you do want.

Focus on what you want and you find a bigger solution space

The second reason why this is sensible is that your solution space is much bigger than when you focus on what you don’t want. To go back to Russell Ackoff’s TV example, if what you want is to have an evening of good entertainment, you could play a DVD or download a movie from Apple iTunes or decide to go to a concert etc.. If you want to improve safety in your company, you must focus on creating a safety culture and review how this culture is created every day by supervisors and employees. Rather than measuring the lost-time-injury rate, you would start to get an impression of the safety culture, for example, through the use of narratives. You would meet with workers and explore what their ideas are to make the environment safer and what ideas they have to accomplish this.

If you want to make improvements, first explore with others who are involved what you want and can accomplish. Rather than focusing on defects, focus on what people find attractive and start moving in that direction.