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The word “Can’t” is not compatible with continuous improvement. It is surprising how many things that “can’t” be done get accomplished by people and teams when they actually try. “Can’t” becomes an excuse for not attempting. It also is frequently treated as gospel when people say something “can’t be done.” There is an old expression about “Those who say something can’t be done should get out of the way of those who are doing it.”

Henry Ford reportedly also had something to say about the topic. He is attributed as saying something to the effect of: ‘If you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.’

Changing the “can’t” mentality is very difficult and time consuming, but also very rewarding. That negative mentality makes people reluctant to look for new ways of doing things. Once people get past the point where their initial response is that something can’t be done, they begin to approach new ideas with an open mind.

When people adopt an ‘anything is possible’ mindset, they start to assess the merits of ideas before dismissing them. Far fewer opportunities are discarded outright, meaning that more good opportunities make it through the “can’t” filter.

Of course, many projects do have some real constraints on them. But keep in mind that anything can be done—we just might not yet have enough time, money, or knowledge about how to do it. A classic example of throwing aside the “can’t” mentality was in John F. Kennedy’s statement in the early 1960’s that we would get to the moon by the end of the decade. At the time he made the claim, we didn’t yet know how to do it, but that didn’t stop him from throwing down the gauntlet. In practicality, most companies don’t have the resources that a nation has. But if something is important, they can often solve a problem if they commit the resources they do have to it.

The "Can't Jar"

The “Can’t Jar”

The key is that people have to be conditioned to get away from the negative responses to ideas. For example, some kaizen teams ban the word “can’t.” Some teams even institute a fine for saying it, requiring the offender to place a quarter in a jar. Those lighthearted approaches start the process of changing the way people think about possibilities. But long term change generally requires persistence on the part of leaders. They must understand why people think things are impossible, and coach their teams on how to go about solving problems and overcoming obstacles.

Recognize that there are times when projects will fail. The important thing is to always keep trying. Keep looking for better ways to do things. Don’t let negative attitudes derail improvement efforts.


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