Incremental vs. Transformative goals

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Have you ever thought of trying to improve something substantially, but your team only comes up with incremental changes? How do you make a “great leap forward”? Charles Duhigg, in Smarter, Faster, Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business, gives an example of how important stretch goals are to the process.

After World War II, as Japan began focusing on rebuilding itself, the government decided it wanted to create substantially faster travel between cities. With trains going about 50-60 miles per hour, the engineers were challenged with coming up with a process to launch a superior service. After several months, the engineers came up with a set of coordinated incremental changes that yielded 75 miles per hour. The railway chief lambasted the designs and said he wanted something that could go around 120 miles per hour. Throwing out previous assumptions, , including tunneling through mountains if necessary, over the next two years, they created cars, each with their own motors, rebuilt gears to mesh with less friction, reinforced rails to handle heavier cars, and provide greater stability. Hundreds of innovations were tried, each making the train a little faster than before. In 1964 the first bullet train left Tokyo along continuously welded rails passing through tunnels cut into Japan’s mountains. Its inaugural trip reached an average of 120 miles per hour. It spurred growth in Japan and gave birth to high speed train projects in France, Germany, Australia, China, etc.

Moreover it inspired other leads to stop asking for incremental improvements but transformative changes. Jack Welch adopted announced he wanted each division of General Electric (GE) to do the same. The division manufacturing airplane engines, for instance, announced they would reduce the number of defects in finished agents by 25%, mostly through incremental improvements. Welch agreed on the priority – but set the goal at 70%. His mangers told him that was impossible. He then gave them three years to figure out how to do it and gave them the ability to rethink all processes, By analyzing every error they had experienced in the last year, they concluded the goal could only be achieved if every single employee, in addition to manufacturing became the quality assurance worker responsible for catching mistakes. By changing which workers were hired, how they were trained and how the factory processes worked, the division transformed the people, remade job duties, created better skilled teams with more flexible mindsets; the result – a 75% decrease in the number of defects. Indeed, the cost of manufacturing dropped 10% every year; indeed, for a record of 38 months not a single delivery was missed!

The point is that SMART goals, the process many people use to be more productive, is critical to getting things done – but usually only at the incremental level. To get truly transformative goals, leaders have to set stretch goals which force people to rethink every part of the system – resources, people, technology, and processes – and then weave together a set of sub-goals focusing on each component of the new system and then managing each one using the SMART goals.

Indeed, successful “skunk-work” and “moon-shot” projects recognize this principle. The leader sets a stretch goal for an exponentially superior process/product, and empowers the team to throw out restrictive assumptions, disrupt complacency and promote creativity for innovation. 3M notes that stretch goals have been key to such inventions as Scotch tape and Thinsulate!

So, decide what you want, set a stretch goal, give people adequate time experiment with new ideas so they can identify the component sub-goals which, when achieved using SMART goals, produce the transformative stretch goal for your and/or your company.

What’s your experience with incremental vs. transformative goal-setting and achievement? Share with us!