If you’re reading this, you’re likely sitting behind a desk or smartphone. At this moment, you’re probably not interacting with the people who can tell you where your organization can do better. And that’s alright for now, but these 5 tips will require you to move.
Here are 5 ways to inject a little continuous improvement into your organizational culture. (A hint: It starts with you)
- Change the way you look at failure. Allow failure to make you curious instead of anxious. Failure is the time to learn something new about the system with which you work. Separate yourself from the emotion behind it, and hold it up to the light. Observe it from all angles. Henry Ford said, “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”
Part of changing the way you look at failure is also changing the way you respond to other people’s failure. Failure isn’t the opposite of innovation. Fear is, and innovation cannot thrive in an environment where people don’t feel safe to fail. Your staff must know they have your support as they take risks – and learn from them.
- Observe the work and seek understanding. My 5-year-old son exasperatedly says, “I know… I know…” to everything from wiping his own bum to operating the lawnmower alone. It’s the usual refrain just before catastrophe hits, but he still insists he knows. Humans don’t change much as we age. When asked about what goes on in our organization, we insist, “I know… I know…” but do we? We have a general picture of how we think things are running. My 5-year-old has a theoretical understanding of how to use toilet paper. He’s used it in the past. But somehow there’s undesirable variation in the result of his toilet paper use. This isn’t different in our organization. We have a theoretical understanding of a process based on what we’ve done or seen in the past, but we don’t know that the process has shifted.
Go and see the process. Observe one or two cycles of it silently. See the details, and notice where it deviates from your understanding. Develop a curiosity about the process. This, by the way, should be routine, not done only when something is wrong. Your front-line should be very used to and comfortable with your quiet observation. Once you’ve observed silently, then ask your employees to walk you through each step of the process. Be curious, positive, non-judgmental, and ask questions.
If you’re having trouble figuring out what “work” you should be observing, start with the point where your product or service meets the external customer and then work your way backward.
- Empower front-line staff to be the problem solvers. Your front-line staff are your subject matter experts. They know the details of the work you do. And now that you’re in the thick of the work with them, this is your shot to show them your support. Ask them what challenges they face and how the challenges affect the outcome of the product. The customer? Their job satisfaction? And finally ask them what they think could be done to fix it. Your responsibility is to non-judgmentally listen to the responses. Put aside your own thoughts and listen.
- Separate ‘go-do-its’ from heavy-lifting improvement projects. Standing right there, during your observation, talk with your staff about which of their suggestions they can enact immediately. Empower them to make the quick change, and then monitor the results for a short period of time. Inevitably, your staff may uncover some improvements that will require more work. It is not just a ‘go-do.’ Request their patience, add it to an improvement projects list, and set it aside. (If you don’t already, you should begin a running list of potential improvement projects.) This time is for connecting with your process, and with the people who make that process happen. I will cover breakthrough improvement projects in another blog post.
- Kaizen. Kaizen translates directly to mean good change or improvement, but within the lean management framework, it has taken on a more nuanced meaning of continual improvement. Your organization should have a perpetual eye on improvement, with the understanding that incremental improvement leads to massive gains over time. It is the understanding that improvement is more than the sum of its projects, but the continuous grind of looking at where you can exceed the customer’s expectations.
Recap: These five items are things you can do right now to get started with continuous improvement.
- Celebrate failure as a learning opportunity,
- Observe and understanding your process,
- Empowering the do-ers of your process to make on-the-spot improvements,
- Do your ‘go-do’s immediately and keep a list of future improvement projects
- Understand that incremental change is just as powerful as massive overhauls
I promised you in the beginning that you’d have to come out from behind your screen by the end of this post. Quick: get out of your chair, go over to the people who make it happen every day, watch them work and ask some questions. Do this at least once a week. It should really only take a few minutes, but your learnings will be priceless.
If you’ve done this before, or after reading this were inspired to try it, please share some things you learned from the experience.
Till next time!