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Into the Ocean with Only a Paddle

by Hope Cullen
continuous improvement

The Steps of Continuous Improvement

As I watched an episode of Aerial America regarding the Hawaiian Islands, I became fascinated with the story of the Polynesians who settled that land approximately 2000 years ago.  As I reflected on what a journey like that must have been like, more than 2000 miles in little more than a canoe with a small sail and paddles, it occurred to me that someone among them had to have the vision and leadership to prepare the settlers for that journey.  Was their experience so different than what many of us face in our lives today?  The steps they took to prepare for a journey of that magnitude are the same principles applicable in today’s world.

1. Planning the trip probably included selecting team members, making provisions and some training.  It also likely involved understanding what it took to survive in a small space with 5 to 8 other individuals for weeks at a time.  Taking food with them, but preparing to fish along the way. Storing water, but planning for some level of the unknown like storms.

2. Charting the course must have been interesting given that they had no idea where or when they would land.  All they had was a broad idea or hope that something better was ahead and the general sense, and probably some level of experience, of what it would take to achieve the unknown.

3. Setting sail is always an exciting time in any journey or project.  Enthusiasm and energy for the project is high and adrenaline helps us push through those early hours and days of an undertaking.  Managing, channeling and even preserving that energy and enthusiasm was important as it would be needed in the difficult days ahead.

4. Life at sea must have entailed daily tasks to keep the canoe(s) moving in the general direction, and adjusting course as the ocean and winds moved the expedition in ways only a sailor can understand.  Resource management was about rationing water and food for a journey of unknown duration.  Fishing from the canoes was necessary along with water conservation.  No doubt rough seas were a part of that journey, with seawater filling the boat as waves crashed over them.  Fear of the unknown would have been something a captain of the boat would have had to address.  Day after day of the same effort, each settler knowing success was not guaranteed, required teambuilding by the captain and others.  No doubt there were times when some expressed their desire to turn back, while others voiced their determination to stay the course.

5. Preparing for landfall must have been a glorious moment when the lookout first glimpsed the beautiful island of Kauai. Stowing of provisions, planning for the unknown on land, and transitioning the team from sailors to explorers had to be done, perhaps in a matter of hours, as the final push to land began.

6. Planning the next journey must have been on the minds of the tribal elders who first imagined an epic journey that saw a small band of Polynesian settlers sail and begin inhabiting what we now call Hawaii.  They most likely had small excursions to other closer islands as experience before embarking on this grandest of journeys. And now they could add this 2000-mile trek north into the unknown to their tribes’ knowledge.

As I reflect on the continuous improvement journeys we all take in business, it’s fascinating to consider that I’m practicing a skill that was used by those brave souls who colonized Hawaii. The same steps they took along an epic voyage that discovered a set of islands in the Pacific Ocean apply equally to those journeys we experience in our professional lives.  Certainly lives aren’t at stake when we embark on a major project, but the time-tested principles of how to navigate that journey are very similar.

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