Is Perfect the Enemy of Good?

My wife and I enjoy the occasional TV police drama. Now before you start to question how I spend my spare time, hear me out.

One day last week one of the characters in a show we frequent stated that “perfect is the enemy of good”. That phrase stuck with me. I did a search online and apparently the quote, contributed to Voltaire no less, was originally “better is the enemy of good” or perhaps “perfect is the enemy of good enough” – give or take some allowance for a sloppy translation from French to English.

That led me to thinking about the quest for perfection in a lean context.

Don’t ask me why. I’m just weird.


I think the answer to the question “is perfect the enemy of good?” in a lean context is “yes”. I’ll explain.

Often I find myself working side by side with many knowledgeable and passionate people as we attempt to discover a countermeasure to a particular problem. We examine the problem in detail in a 5-Why format. We look for the root cause. We discuss and dissect and ponder. We will then fuss over a countermeasure in the quest for a perfect solution to the problem - only to find that one does not exist. So should we quit trying? Of course not.

I have to keep reminding myself, and others, that the goal in fact is not perfection. The goal is continuous improvement on the way to perfection. Yes that is a basic tenet of lean, but it is surprising how continuous improvement gets clouded or even blocked by the quest for perfection.

If we wait until a countermeasure is perfect before trying it out, as is my nature I’m afraid, we will be waiting a very long time. While all that waiting goes on the opportunity to make a significant improvement passes us by. Plan, do, check, act. It’s so simple. And so easy to look past.

Perfection is an ideal. It exists only in the imagination. Winston Churchill said once that “Success is the ability to go from one failure to the next with no loss of enthusiasm”. I love that quote. It is so fitting (and perhaps a bit tongue in cheek) when cast in the light of continuous improvement.

There is one caveat though - safety. In our company perfection in safety is the goal. I believe that is the correct approach. Zero incidents. None. Zip. To settle for less gets people hurt - or worse. Even in the world of safety though, a continuous improvement approach has meaningful value when deployed to prevent incidents from happening in the first place.

Next time you’re watching some goofy police drama look for a character quoting Voltaire. You never know where that might lead you.

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