Imagining what is possible: The first step of improvement

Imagining what is possible: The first step of improvement


The Life Coach School podcast is on my regular listening rotation as I always like to hear what uber-successful coach Brooke Castillo has to say. On episode number 221, she talks about possibility and imagination.

Brooke’s point is that when you talk to kids and young adults, they talk about their future and what is possible. Their imaginations are wide open – dreaming up all kinds of opportunities and ways to live their life. Up until the age of about 25, young people believe anything is possible for their future.  As people get older however, they look to their past for evidence about what is possible in their future. Brooke asks her clients, what result do you want in your life that you don’t have now? A new career?  Better relationships? A new hobby or passion? Weight loss? They say, I want to create this new thing in my life, but ‘I don’t know how’ and ‘I’ve never done it before.’

Possibly and Continuous Improvement

As I was listening, I immediately saw the correlation to continuous improvement. Those are the same things leaders and employees say when you challenge them to innovate, to create more value for the customer, to remove waste, and to improve their operations.

“We can’t.”

“We’ve never done it before.”

“We don’t know how.”

“It isn’t possible.”

But, innovation is achieved in exactly this way – by setting goals we don’t yet know how to achieve.

Set the Direction

In the Improvement Kata model created by Mike Rother in his book Toyota Kata, setting a direction or challenge is the first step of any improvement effort and is meant to be something you don’t currently know how to achieve. Something that is beyond what you think is possible. The challenge should differentiate you from the competition and finish the sentence, “Wouldn’t it be great if….” You know it’s a good one if it kind of makes you want to throw up.

To Brooke’s point, even getting agreement to set this challenge is often difficult for people. They immediately think of all the reasons it won’t work.

I was recently coaching a client who was trying to decide what their challenge should be. After some analysis of their value streams and discussion I asked, would you be willing to set a goal to increase production on this line? Answer: I don’t think it’s possible. The client gave a list of reasons why production wasn’t higher including changeovers for different product types, unskilled labor shortages, skilled labor shortages, and machine breakdowns. Just like we do in our personal lives, he was looking to his past for evidence of what is possible in the future.

The material to build the future is in the future

The same thinking that is keeping us from setting dramatic personal or career goals is keeping us from striving to achieve operational excellence. With Toyota Kata, there is a routine to practice every day that helps you achieve those vomit-inducing goals.

  1. Set a direction.
  2. Grasp your current condition.
  3. Set a target condition.
  4. Experiment your way forward.

We don’t achieve big goals by making a six-month action plan and ticking off three items each day or by benchmarking other organizations and finding out how they did it. Setting big goals means understanding your obstacles and continuing to learn and experiment your way forward even when the ‘how’ you thought would work, doesn’t actually work.

As Brooke says, “the material to build the future is in the future.”


Photo by Michael Aleo on Unsplash

  • Kelly Cousineau
    September 27, 2018 at 9:30 am

    Love this premise Dorsey. DUH – the (apparently unachievable) goal is in the future and so are the (yet unknown) means to reach it. Thank you for the inspiration.

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