Perfection Vs. Improvement: How to Avoid Complacency

Years ago, our company was brought in by a large industrial client (we’ll call them ABC) to help them improve their safety culture. ABC had been around for decades and was continually growing. However, this growth brought with it some challenges; ABC was producing, but its safety numbers were declining. They recently suffered a significant safety event, which became their catalyst for wanting change.

Without going into too much detail, (because this isn’t a case study) ABC had a fire in its belly and started taking steps to change its safety culture, and it worked! They improved safety numbers across the board. The tide had turned, and victory was declared. When we exited, we left them with some actions to preserve their gains and prevent them from losing momentum. Our most important advice was for them to put in the work every day. “Improvement is a journey, not a destination. Keep doing the day-to-day work to keep improving.”

They quickly returned to business as usual. They never paid attention to safety culture until they were forced. Once they weren’t required to face it anymore, they didn’t. The pain of the significant safety event had faded, and the improved safety numbers brought a sense of “all is well.” They had some turnover in leadership, and putting in the work to shape the safety culture became less of a priority. The return to the old safety culture was almost inevitable and certainly predictable. We have all seen what happens when the fire fades. This scenario reminded me of something I had heard in church.

One Sunday, my youth group was asked, “Who do you think tends to build the stronger testimony? The person who comes to church after a ‘near death’ experience or the person who is looking to learn about a better way?” I thought the person with the “near death” experience was certainly more motivated than the casual knowledge-seeker. This person has a fire and a passion, a deep and personal experience, to keep their determination high. Like most teenagers, my confidence in my answer had no impact on its accuracy.

This is (roughly) how it was explained to me (it’s been a few years).

The person with the “near death” experience typically comes to the table with high emotions and one broad goal, “I need to get right!” Over time, the emotions fade, and they start to rationalize why things might not have been so dire after all. They are in a better place and quickly think they have done enough to understand what it means to be better. They have reached their destination and stopped putting in the work. They stop improving and start to backslide.

The person who comes with the question “Is there a better way?” isn’t trying to “fix” one thing. They are looking for a holistic approach. They know this improvement journey requires continuous learning and the understanding that there is always room to grow. They find the ideas that are valuable to them and use them to change their behaviors a little at a time. They aren’t seeking big changes; they seek small, daily growth. They don’t stop putting in the work because they measure progress in two ways: how close they are to a destination AND how far they are from the place they didn’t want to be. Chasing perfection is frustrating and unattainable, but continuous improvement is rewarded daily.

Improvement is a journey, not a destination.

“I need to get right!” is a destination.

“Is there a better way?” is a journey.

It’s not too hard to see the correlation between personal growth and safety culture. If you wait until there is a fire in your belly, after an accident, injury, or fatality, you’re likely to approach change from a “We need to get right” viewpoint. “We need change, and we need it now! We need to improve those safety numbers, whatever it takes.” You’ll do the work and probably see some improvement, but is this sustainable? Are you motivated because it’s the right thing to do or because the numbers and metrics don’t look good? Once the numbers and metrics improve, what will keep you motivated?

If you look at those numbers as “hitting a goal,” you may be inclined to stop doing the work. Remember, the person who continuously improves looks at progress in two ways: how close they are to a destination AND how far they are from the place they didn’t want to be. Chasing perfection is frustrating and unattainable, but continuous improvement is rewarded daily.

No matter how good the numbers are, there are two reasons to keep doing the work. First, you need to preserve your gains. Very few organisms in nature maintain a static state. Motion is happening. If you stop ascending, you are surely declining. Second, there is always room for improvement; again, improvement is a journey, not a destination. As Steve Jobs said, “There is always one more thing to learn.” You can get complacent if you measure success by where you have arrived. Try also to measure improvement by how far you’ve come. Are you better than you were yesterday, and what are you doing today to be better tomorrow? This will help you to keep putting in the work after the fire fades.

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