Don't Let Perfection Be a Barrier to Improvement

The continuous improvement world is full of buzzwords. Two of them are seemingly at odds with each other.

The first is zero defects. The theory is that a company should never be tolerant of defects, and should strive for perfection from all their processes.

The other buzzword is ‘better, not perfect‘. This theory advocates spending your time and resources in the areas where they deliver the biggest bang for the buck. Once the returns start to diminish, it is time to move on to a more pressing problem where the time can be better spent. This theory also promotes the idea that you don’t have to make processes pretty. As long as it works better than the old way, it is good enough.

On the surface, the two seem to be incompatible. If you know of something that can be done to make a process better and you intentionally choose to leave the issue unresolved, you are violating the principle of zero defects. But if you overspend your resources for a small gain when there is a bigger gain available somewhere else, your actions violate the ‘better, not perfect’ principle.

So, which is right?

In short, both are. You get closer to zero defects by continuously applying the principle of better, not perfect. The truth, though, is that nobody has ever actually gotten to zero defects. Perfection is an elusive concept. The challenge is to keep moving towards it, despite knowing that you will never arrive.

Treat zero defects as your ‘North Star’. It is more of a navigation tool than an actual destination. Strive to move toward it as fast as possible. That is accomplished by embracing the ‘better, not perfect’ principle. The more you get out of your limited improvement resources, the higher your improvement velocity will be.

Read more articles by Jeff Hajek at the Gotta Go Lean blog.

7 Responses to Don't Let Perfection Be a Barrier to Improvement

  1. Juan Garay November 1, 2012 at 9:14 am #

    I think continuous improvment is the result of doing things better, but focusing on things that have significance and relevance on the process.

    I work in poultry industry, and I think we have to focus on projects that make us competitive. Small grains of sand do a mountain.

  2. Vladimir Belicevic November 2, 2012 at 12:20 am #

    What can we say except, I completely agree. In practice, we frequently find the need where it tends to zero defects. This approach can be a serious obstacle to any success. Climbing to the top of the building always starts with the first stair, and other … Simply continuous improvement. Abrupt changes are very rare occurrence that almost never happens. Do not let the desire for perfection may be your biggest hurdle. Perfection comes at the end of the road in any project.

  3. Yoram Labin November 2, 2012 at 10:05 am #

    Aiming to 0 defects is wrong, you have to give achivable goals: 5 sigma, 6 sigma…
    It can be evalutaed by measurements, and the next stage will be improvement to higher level. As aresult it will be possible to decide of new achivable goal.
    And so actually you have to use just the:”Better,not Perfect” atitude.

  4. Jeff Hajek November 2, 2012 at 4:57 pm #


    I hadn’t used the grains of sand analogy, but I like it. I’ll have to add that to my bag of tricks.

    Absolutely right about the focus. Becoming great isn’t always about coming up with ideas, but rather figuring out which ones are the highest value ones and getting the highest return on the resources you spend.

    Thanks for contributing to the discussion.

  5. Jeff Hajek November 2, 2012 at 5:00 pm #


    I think the challenge for some is that in a building, you can reach the top floor. In CI, you keep going and going and going…There is no top floor.

    If leaders don’t manage that feeling, it can be discouraging for teams.

    Thanks for the comment.

  6. Jeff Hajek November 2, 2012 at 5:08 pm #


    I think I really turned the corner in Lean when I went from what you are saying–that 5 or 6 sigmas is good enough, to the belief that zero defects should be a driving value, even if it is a currently unattainable goal.

    I am fully on board with setting a 5 sigma goal if you are currently at 4 sigma. Or a 6 sigma goal if you are currently at 5. But if/when you get to six, you can’t think you are done. That’s really my point about that pursuit of perfection. There is always room to improve somewhere.

    Thanks for your comment, even if you disagreed with me. I always love a lively discussion on Lean.


  7. Hirak Dutta November 9, 2012 at 10:01 pm #

    Working in inherently hazardous oil & gas industry, it must be our mission to achieve Zero accidents. Even if we do not achieve Zero, it must be our continuous pursuit to achieve the same.