10 Ways Leaders Can Drive Continual Improvement
Leaders play a critically important role in creating the environment in which continual improvement happens. By making adjustments to the way they lead in a disciplined and routine manner, leaders have the ability to affect a major cultural shift to a culture of continual improvement.
Here are 10 examples:
1) State Your Belief in Continual Improvement
A leader needs to be public in his/her belief that continual improvement is an important part of the organization’s strategy and that everyone can participate.
While continual improvement might not be able to fix everything (sometimes a practice has to be redesigned from scratch), everyone has a role to play in the process of ongoing, continual improvement.
2) Explain Why Continual Improvement is Important
Leaders must convey to all employees the importance of continual improvement as it relates to goals and strategy, both at the departmental/divisional level and for the organization as a whole.
Progress will naturally arise from the frontline staff who are actively identifying problems or opportunities for improvement, and the mark of a successful culture is that everyone has a grasp of the direction and goals of the organization.
3) Empower, but be a Servant Leader
It is important to challenge people to not just come up with ideas, but also to participate in the testing and evaluation for those ideas. That said, there are some things that frontline staff can not do on their own and a leader needs to know when to delegate vs. when to step in.
Too often, leaders err on the side of jumping in to help…to give people answers or do the work for them. Staff must be allowed to try things on their own, partly for the goal of developing people. If they are unsuccessful, it is time for leadership to step in and help.
Lead through example by applying the principles of continual improvement to something in your own work. This is the most effective way to demonstrate that this approach is applicable and beneficial to everybody at all levels, and to demystify continual improvement as a practice. It also helps leaders understand the details of the process and appreciate the improvement work of their employees.
5) Ask for Continual Improvement Ideas and Opportunities
It might seem obvious, but to get people to participate in continual improvement, leaders must ask for input and ideas. Leaders need to keep asking, and continuously remind people that their input is valued.
Encourage people to think about workplace frustrations, consider how their work could be made more efficient, and improve their work rather than accepting status quo.
6) Don’t Require Every Improvement to be an Event or Project
“Kaizen Events”…”Rapid Improvement Events”…”Rapid Process Improvement Workshops”. Many organizations are very focused on turning every idea for improvement into a formal event or project. While projects and events are critical components of a comprehensive improvement program, they are inherently intermittent or episodic…not continuous.
Leaders should also encourage improvements that are smaller and more continuous in nature, which will empower people to contribute ideas as they see them.
7) Emphasize Small Ideas
In order to gain success and momentum in your organization or department, there must be some victories – things that make the workplace or customer results better in some way. So, rather than staring off with large projects which, frankly, may never have an endpoint, it is important to focus on small ideas that you know can be accomplished with tangible results.
With small wins, staff can point to examples of positive change in the workplace…and this kind of result offers reassurance that they are a real part of the organization with an opportunity to be heard. At the same time, one of the beauties of continual improvement is that occasionally something that sounds like a small idea may have an unexpectedly far-reaching impact.
8) Ask for More than Just Cost Savings
There is no question that cost savings is extremely important for all industries in today’s climate. However, talking only about cost won’t engage most employees in most organizations. Leaders need to ask for improvements that impact areas and measures such as:
- Wait times
- Wasted time/effort
- Customer satisfaction
- Employee satisfaction
By looking beyond just cost savings, a more sustainable culture of continual improvement is created with far more cost savings in the long run. Doing all of these other things well (safety, quality, customer satisfaction, etc.) will lead to lower costs and better financial performance.
9) Look at Processes Instead of Blaming People
People are often so afraid of the consequences of making errors that it is a habit to simply hide mistakes. In an environment where a leader constantly states that the blame is not going to fall on individuals – but that instead the process will be reviewed – individuals stop hiding errors and near misses. When people no longer feel they will be blamed for something, they are more willing to point out problems and to engage in improving the process that led to the error.
10) Keep Asking for Continual Improvement
A leader must keep asking for ideas and concerns so that continual improvement will be a truly continuous effort. Continual improvement is not a “project we completed last year”, as is so often stated by leaders of failed cultures. Rather, it is an ongoing process, ingrained in every element and every individual in the business. Asking for ideas should be part of every team huddle, every department meeting, and nearly every interaction with any employee.