Escape the Improvement Trap: Five Ingredients Missing in Most Improvement Recipes, 1st Edition (Paperback) book cover

Escape the Improvement Trap

Five Ingredients Missing in Most Improvement Recipes, 1st Edition

By Michael Bremer, Brian McKibben

Productivity Press

319 pages | 61 B/W Illus.

Purchasing Options:$ = USD
Paperback: 9781439817964
pub: 2010-09-28
Hardback: 9781138464209
pub: 2017-08-09
eBook (VitalSource) : 9780429245886
pub: 2017-08-09
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Written by two experts who have dedicated their careers to quality improvement, Escape the Improvement Trap: Five Ingredients Missing in Most Improvement Recipes separates itself from other improvement books by looking at why most companies rarely achieve anything more than an average level of improvement maturity. They identify five critical ingredients required for successful improvement:

1. A meaningful business value proposition and strategy that drives key improvement actions

2. An engaging environment where people can do their best work

3. A focus on meaningful metrics while avoiding irrelevant details

4. Process improvement efforts that maximize cross-functional process performance and foster deeper process understanding, innovation, and execution of best work practices

5. An executive mindset that focuses on customer value, people development, process performance, and business improvement outcomes, not solely on savings

The authors consider a variety of situations at Independence Enterprise, a fictional company, based on their own very real experiences. They elaborate on the principles that should come into play, look at what Independence Enterprise is doing right and wrong, and suggest deployment actions to help you apply the principles to your own organization.


… a must read book for all senior executives seeking to change the culture of their organization and drive it to a level 4 or 5 on the Improvement Maturity Curve. We have all suffered from the difficulty of sustaining improvement … this book lays out the sustaining process in a simple, common sense way that is easy to read.

—Basem Hishmeh, Chairman, Sigma-Netics, Inc.

We are entering into a Reset global economy, where a New Normal has clearly been established, filled with much peril and much opportunity, yet with an uncertain path forward for all. Now along comes a book focused on Improvement that can help you avoid the Trap, and develop a path that avoids peril, takes advantage of opportunity, and drives Twenty First century success.

—Dan McDonnell, Lean Initiative manager, General Electric Transportation

My cynicism of the quality field is based on hundreds of theoretical books on the subject. They seem to serve little purpose other than the author’s pontification of what they think they know, or perhaps serve as a platform for the speaking circuit. Mr. Bremer brings an exception to this otherwise commoditized quality industry. He provides a practical, how-to guide for the organization’s improvement all the way to the all important bottom line. His concepts, told through the parable of a real life situation, Independence Enterprise, Inc., give it a feel of a modern day The Goal, the epoch bible of efficiency by Eliyahu M. Goldratt. Mr. Bremer elaborates on RELATIVE gains whereby one compares oneself to their competitors, industry, and even global economy vs. the all too popular ABSOLUTE measure where one measures oneself against oneself. Finally, an author that gets it … .

—Donald R. McNeeley, Ph.D., President & COO, Chicago Tube and Iron Company

Providing methods and metrics for effecting true change, Escape the Improvement Trap highlights how to avoid common improvement traps that inhibit many organizations from rising above the rest. Written by two experts who have dedicated their careers to quality improvement … separates itself from other improvement books by looking at why most companies rarely achieve anything more than an average level of improvement maturity. … Bremer and McKibben consider a variety of situations at Independence Enterprise, a fictional company, based on their own real experiences. They elaborate on the principles that should come into play, look at what Independence Enterprise is doing right and wrong, and suggest deployment actions to help readers apply the principles to their own organization. Bremer, who lead the creation of a company-wide improvement initiative for Beatrice Companies, has served as a Senior Engagement Manager for Motorola University and McKibben, a founding partner of the Cumberland Group-Chicago, has held management roles at several manufacturing companies. … Escape the Improvement Trap is a practical, how-to guide to performance improvement for senior management. … easy to read, explains concepts simply, and provides concrete examples., December 2010

Table of Contents


Look at Your Organization’s Ability to Improve Relative to Your Industry

More Critical Thinking Skills Need to Be Learned and Used

Why We Wrote This Book

How This Book Can Help You

The New Normal: Just Because Your Organization Is Better than It Used to Be Doesn’t Mean You Have a Competitive Advantage

Introducing Independence Enterprise, Inc.

The Reality of the New Business Environment

The Performance Improvement Dream

The Reality of Most Improvement Initiatives

Improvement Results and the Car You Drive

Improvement Results within an Industry

Five Levels of Improvement Maturity

Quick Test: Assess Your Organization’s Improvement Level

Independence Enterprise Assesses Its Improvement Level

So, Are Performance Improvement Initiatives Worthwhile?

What Does It Mean to Escape the Improvement Trap?

Independence Enterprise Inc. Assesses Its Improvement Level

What Does It Mean to Be Average?

Characteristics of Level 2 Organizations

Characteristics of Level 3 Organizations

Examples of Level 3 Organizations

What Is the Improvement Trap?

Opportunities and Reality

Five Common Missing Ingredients

Independence Enterprise Looks at What’s Missing in Its Improvement Efforts

Chapter Wrap-Up: A Checklist for You to Assess Your Organization—Are You Just Average?

The Pathway to Becoming a Level 4 and Level 5

Organization: An Overview of the Five Key Ingredients to Improvement

Independence Enterprise, Inc. Considers the Five Key Ingredients to Improvement

Following the Improvement Pathway

Summary of the Five Ingredients Necessary to Break Out of the Improvement Trap

Which Came First at Toyota: The Tools or These Ingredients?

Independence Enterprise Decides to Analyze the Value It Creates for Customers

Chapter Wrap-Up: Execution—Following the Path

Ingredient 1: Customer Value Develop a Meaningful Business Value Proposition to Drive Improvement Actions

Independence Enterprise Assesses Its Value to Its Customers

Principles to Consider Regarding How Your Organization Improves Value to Your Customers

Customer Value Should Drive Improvement

A Strategy Is an Improvement Hypothesis

Make Sure You Have a Deep Understanding of Value

Apply the 80/20 Rule: Which Customers Value What You Do?

Understand the Rule of 16

Understanding Customer Requirements

Independence Enterprise Applies the 80/20 Rule to Its Customers

Independence Enterprise Reassesses How Well It Delivers Value to Customers

Evaluating Policy Deployment at Independence

Reviewing Independence’s Mojo

Identifying Strategic Value and Improvement Opportunities at Independence

Seeing Reality: Independence Enterprise’s Improvement Activities Weren’t Effective

Chapter Wrap-Up: Deployment Actions to Apply Customer Value Principles

Ingredient 2: Engage People

Leaders Create an Environment Where People Can Do Their Best Work

Independence Enterprise Evaluates How Engaged Its Employees Are

Principles to Consider Regarding Whether Your Organization’s Employees Are Truly Engaged in Their Work

Making the Case for Improving Employee Engagement

Create an Environment of Trust

Challenge People to Improve Their Critical Thinking Skills

Employees Who Are Engaged in Their Work Will Actively Innovate

Employee Engagement at W. L. Gore: A Case Study

Ensure Fairness in Compensation and Rewards

Profit-Indexed Performance Pay Systems

When Employees are Engaged, Phenomenal Results Can Occur: A Case Study

Assessing the Engagement Level of Independence Employees

Chapter Wrap-Up: Deployment Actions to Engage Employees

Ingredient 3: Key Metrics Focus on the Vital Few, Meaningful Metrics; Avoid Drowning in Irrelevant Details

Independence Enterprise Evaluates Its Key Performance Metrics

Getting the Metrics Right: What You Can Learn from Baseball Stats

Principles to Consider Regarding How Well Your Organization’s

Key Metrics Reflect Overall Performance

True North Performance Metrics

How Do Goals Fit into Performance Metrics?

The Ugly Side of Performance Metrics

The Month-End Panic

The Purpose and Use of Metrics

Customer Value and the 80/20 Rule

Customer Value and the Net Promoter Score

Customer Value and Target Costs

Engage People Metrics

Process Thinking Metrics

Cascading the Metrics from One Level to the Next

Get the Right Metrics Visual Methods

Metric Development Tools

Lean Accounting

Independence Enterprise Develops New Insights into the Use of Metrics

Chapter Wrap-Up: Deployment Actions for Better (More Useful) Metrics

Metrics Evaluation Checklist

Metrics Development Steps

Ingredient 4: Process Thinking Maximize Cross‑Functional Process Performance and Foster Deeper Process Understanding, Innovation, and Execution of the Best Work Practices

Independence Enterprise’s Functional Groups Did Not Work Together

Principles to Consider Regarding Whether Your Organization’s Departments Are Truly Working Together

Stretch Your Thinking beyond Your Direct Roles and Responsibilities

Redefining Our Mental Models for Business Processes

Step A: Clarify Customer Requirements

Step B: Streamline Value Creation Processes

Step C: Align Support Systems

Typical Support Systems

What to Avoid with Support Systems

Managing Support Systems for Overall Business Performance

A Support Systems Improvement Case Study: The JK Manufacturing Company

Support Systems Conclusions

Maintaining a Focus

The Process Improvement Menu: Tools, Concepts, and Methods

Process Thinking Stories

Total Costs and Process Thinking (Cost of Outsourcing)

Developing Process Thinking at Independence Enterprise

Chapter Wrap-Up: Deployment Actions for Better Process Thinking/Understanding

Ingredient 5: The Executive Mindset Focus on Customer Value, People Development, Process Performance, and Business Improvement Outcomes, Not Solely on Savings

Independence Enterprise Assesses Its Own Executive Mindset

Principles to Consider Regarding Your Organization’s Executive Mindset

Using Strategy Deployment to Find True North

Basic Steps for Strategic Deployment

Case Example of Strategy Deployment

Don’t Go Nuts with It: Too Much of a Good Thing Is Not a Good Thing

Conducting Gemba Walks—A Reality Check

Strength of Character Is a Litmus Test for Leadership Credibility

Being Part of a Larger Purpose

A Radical Whack at Who Adds Value

Transformation at Nissan Motor Company: A Case Study

Governance Should Focus on the Big Picture, Not a Narrow Slice of the Business (Savings)

Developing a One-Page Plan

Independence Enterprise Develops Its One-Page Plan

How Independence Enterprise Has Changed

Chapter Wrap-Up: Deployment Actions to Apply the Principles

Assessing Your Organization’s Improvement Maturity Level

Assessing Business Progress within an Industry

Take the Quick Test Again to Assess Your Organization’s Improvement Maturity

Assessing Improvement Maturity

Five Missing Ingredients Are Not a Magic Pill

Calibrating the Scoring

Rating Standards for the Improvement Maturity (IM) Assessment

Assessing Your Organization’s Improvement Maturity (IM) Level

Summarizing the Assessment of Your Organization’s Improvement Level

Interpreting the Results of Your Assessment

Using the Assessment Results

A Few Closing Thoughts

About the Authors

Michael Bremer has worked in the world of business process improvement since 1980. He led the creation of a company-wide improvement initiative for Beatrice Companies, a Fortune 30 Company at the time, where he had the opportunity to study under the tutelage of Dr. W. Edwards Deming and Dr. Joseph Juran. The Beatrice Improvement initiative was one of the models studied in creating the Malcolm Baldrige Quality Award. Michael is currently the president of the Cumberland Group. In recent years he has served as a Senior Engagement Manager for Motorola University, is a past Chief Financial Officer for the Association of Manufacturing Excellence and has held a variety of other positions in industrial and service businesses.

Michael currently teaches a class on innovation and process improvement for the University of Chicago’s Graham School. He co-authored Six Sigma Black Belt Handbook (McGraw-Hill, 2004) and Six Sigma Financial Tracking and Reporting(McGraw-Hill, 2005), aka: I had a million dollars in savings, but my P&L did not change. Michael earned a BS in accounting, from the University of Missouri – St. Louis. He is a CPA, certified MBB, certified Lean Bronze expert and a CMC. He has worked with organizations in many countries to improve the way they go about the business of improvement.

Brian McKibben is a founding partner of The Cumberland Group–Chicago. He has thirty years’ experience in operations planning and management, helping business teams reduce waste, improve quality, smooth production flows, shorten order cycle times, and reduce inventories. His approach to business performance improvement includes four elements:

  • Clear definition of customer requirements, especially their loyalty factors
  • Lean business processes; add only value to products and services; no waste
  • Team-based methods for broad workforce involvement in improvement efforts
  • Measurement = the springboard to Continuous Improvement

Before joining Cumberland in 1991, Brian held management roles in several manufacturing companies. That experience and the insights he gained from them contribute to his effectiveness in a consulting role. Managing the manufacturing planning functions for 140 Beatrice U.S. Food plants and warehouses provided perspective on optimization of a large-scale enterprise while providing for autonomy and job satisfaction of local operating teams. Directing product design, manufacturing engineering, industrial engineering and manufacturing services for The HON Company, Wesco Manufacturing, and All-Steel proved that even complex processes like product and manufacturing process development can be streamlined (made Lean) to achieve results in a fraction of "expected" times. His experience in a turnaround situation confirmed the saying that "the impossible is often the untried," and that the technical issues in business are less important than the people issues. Business successes are the result of carefully nurtured teamwork; not the rah-rah fluff type, but rather the practical nuts-and-bolts approach that is focused on the team’s common goals and the mechanics of how they work together effectively to achieve those goals quickly.

Brian holds a BS in business and economics/industrial management from the Stuart School of Management and Finance at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago. He is past president of the Chicago chapter of the Institute of Industrial Engineers, a speaker on operations planning and performance improvement to other professional organizations, and co-author of Six Sigma Financial Tracking and Reporting (McGraw-Hill, 2005).

Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
BUSINESS & ECONOMICS / Management Science
BUSINESS & ECONOMICS / Quality Control