If it's part of a well-defined improvement program, not an end unto itself, the low-hanging fruit is well worth picking. But beware, lest it turn out to be a poison apple.

Since the re-engineering days of the 1980s, every process or facility improvement project has chased the elusive low-hanging fruit. Groups with colorful names like quick-hit teams, early wins committees and rapid action teams were mobilized, and kaizen events carried out, on the premise that big benefits were there for the taking with little or no effort.

Today, low-hanging fruit shouldn't even exist. In two decades of downsizing, right-sizing, mergers and re-engineering we should have wrung the life out of all the trees. However, low-hanging fruit does exist. The opportunities, and the potential benefits, aren't what they once were. But when you find them they're worth picking. Here's what to look for, and how to avoid picking a "poison apple."

• The opportunity should not require extensive re-engineering or redesign.

• The opportunity should not require information system modification.

• The approval process should be simple and uncomplicated.

• Implementation should take days or weeks, not months.

As always, there are sound business reasons, pro and con, for seeking the low-hanging fruit. On the plus side, you should reap the benefits as soon as you make the business process, equipment or organizational changes. Staff and employees will see positive results early in the change program, which can be a powerful incentive to look for more opportunities. Taking advantage of the opportunity often allows you to demonstrate the value of a new tool or method.

But on the minus side, relative to focusing on systemic, high-impact changes, looking for low-hanging fruit will consume a proportionally larger amount of resources for a smaller payback. One-off projects focus on the single opportunity, but it's important to go beyond the opportunity itself and look for the root cause. The real benefits derive from fixing the underlying problem.

Another drawback is that it's like eating Chinese food; you are hungry again in a short time. The time consumed to identify and exploit what appear to be "easy pickings" can be extensive. Finally, due to extended supply chains, the opportunity may require coordinating several functions or organizations, so it may not be a quick fix.

Organizations sometimes assume, mistakenly, that a given improvement is simple and can be implemented quickly. This usually results when the scope of the project is poorly defined, with vague objectives and deliverables that are not thought out and effectively communicated to the implementation team. This is a recipe for disaster. You can avoid this with a sound plan for taking advantage of the opportunity once you've identified the low-hanging fruit.

• Conduct a comprehensive analysis of the opportunity, and define the objectives, before the improvement program kicks off. Focus should be on overall objectives of the program, not just quick dollar benefits.

• Focus the implementation plan on achieving the program objectives. A string of unrelated kaizen events that hope to change the culture by teaching employees a new tool set will provide suboptimal results. Kaizen events are tools to meet your objectives, not ends unto themselves.

• Establish an environment that values continuous improvement, so that employees view taking advantage of the opportunity offered by low-hanging fruit as part of their jobs.

The key to success is realizing that picking the low-hanging fruit has to be part of a well-defined improvement program, not an end unto itself. In this context, an improvement program energizes the organization because results follow close behind the effort expended. But beware the single-minded focus on low-hanging fruit, lest it turn out to be a poison apple.