tech, simplified.

On External Limitations, Continuous Improvement, and Blame

The internet’s an easy thing to blame. Faceless, ethereal, piped to our homes and offices by bureaucratic corporations better known for ever-increasing bills and unreachable customer support, it’s the obvious target when something goes wrong on the computer.

You can’t hear someone on a call, or the video freezes in a meeting? The internet. The movie pauses to buffer? The internet. You miss a move in a game? Definitely the internet.

Instead of optimizing and improving, finding ways to eke performance out of the unoptimized, the scapegoat allows us to relax in mediocracy. If only someone else would fix the internet, everything would be right in the world. Far easier it is to assume everything would just work if everyone else did their job than to learn and improve your own systems.

External limitations are convenient excuses for the status quo. They overshadow other issues, turn them into a speck in the eye to analyze and critique, somewhere else to place the blame.

You didn’t leave late for the meeting. It’s the traffic’s fault; “you know how rush hour is,” and with an eye roll and a flick of the hand, personal responsibility is absolved. It’s not that your ceiling could use more insulation, or your car better maintenance; “the sun is so crazy strong here” or “you know how the salt eats the cars” and we nod our heads and chime in with our own anecdotes of similar misfortune.

Until, that is, the external limitations are stripped away. The construction’s finished, the traffic dissipates, yet your arrival time is still uncertain. Gigabit fibre comes to your neighborhood, the speed improves, and the WiFi coverage is still spotty. All along, the internet speed was to blame—as were the pipes and concrete and raw space separating you from your router, the technical limitations of 2.5g WiFi, your frayed cables and cluttered shelf of random electronics. Everyone else resolved their issues. The ball’s back in your court.

There’s a balance to be had, sure. For as soon as your improve your network, a faster network will be available, and you’ll have joined another mini rat race of keeping up. Maybe your speeds are fast enough, your house warm or cool enough, maybe you’ve reached your equilibrium. Zen, calm perfection.

Or perhaps this is where continuous improvement comes in, where products and projects are never fully completed, only gradually improving, approximating every more closely the perfect curve. The lifelong push and pull of better and best, where today’s best is all too soon tomorrow’s better and the next day’s merely ok. Kanzen, continuous improvement in search of perfection.

Either way, the focus isn’t on the external limiting factors. Perfection is to be achieved within the limitations presented. You can’t optimize a car into a rocket, and a car engineer railing against the limitations of gravity at every turn would be delusional at best. You instead perfect what’s at hand. And when the job’s done well enough, you step back and consider what’s next, what other process could be improved, what external limitation could be removed to continue down the improvement path. Otherwise you accept the limitations as they are, neither using them to excuse inaction or blaming them for limitations you’ve discovered that cannot be removed.

Blame not external limitations. Use them instead to frame your optimization strategy, as a guide to perfect what can be. You might not be able to get to the moon thanks to your external limitations, so instead of wasting time and thought cycles on wishing, you can focus instead of what can be achieved.

Thoughts? @reply me on Twitter.