Continuous Improvement: Four Tips for Leaders at All Levels
“Institute leadership. The aim of supervision should be to help people and machines and gadgets to do a better job. Supervision of management is in need of overhaul, as well as supervision of production workers.”
W. Edwards Deming
Many people know that Continuous Improvement has its roots in the quality revolution of post-WW2 Japan. However, few know that the principles and practises of this world renowned improvement methodology are solidly rooted in 1930s North America and the work of the quality focused statistics guru: Dr. W. Edwards Deming. Surprisingly, despite a strong focus on data (hey, give the man a break, he was a statistician after all) many of Deming’s recommendations had nothing to do with statistics, and everything to do with people and, especially, leaders at all levels.
This emphasis on people and leadership has been borne out by my own observations over many years of working in this area of organizational effectiveness. Brought in by many clients to help fix ‘process’ issues, I usually find ourselves also involved in helping resolve ‘people’ issues that cause persistent business problems.
What are some of the things we recommend you do to address the people issues that cause the process problems? Here are some top tips for leaders at all levels, as well as some traps to avoid along the way:
1. Acknowledge, up front and to everyone, that there is a problem and you do not know how to fix it:
The best leaders we work with are the ones who initiate an improvement program like this:
“I know we have issues related to (insert one of any number of business performance issues here) but I don’t know everything about how to fix them. So I invite each and every one of you to get involved in helping us resolve them.” Having the confidence and personal authenticity to deliver these kinds of messages, especially in our mainly ‘defect shy’ business culture, can require great skill and courage. In my experience, leaders with these kinds of capabilities are always more successful than those without.
Top Tip: It’s all about you. Developing these levels of personal skills and authenticity can require a considerable investment in time and, sometimes, money to be successful. However, you never get a second chance to make a first impression, so it’s worth taking the time to develop the skills and capacity to lead like this, and do it right the first time, rather than trying to play catch up when it’s too late.
2. Use believable facts and figures to build a case for improvement
In 1899 Missouri Congressman Willard Vandiver famously declared: “Frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I'm from Missouri, and you have got to show me.”It’s probably safe to say that most people, and most organizational cultures, are ‘from Missouri’ or, in other words, on the fence. Proof, not rhetoric, is what they need to help them make a decision to support a new idea, or to join an improvement initiative
Top Tip: Most people don’t feel the need to engage in a major improvement program unless there is compelling evidence to indicate that a change is required because because “in God we trust, all others bring data.”Fortunately, many organizations already have the data they need to develop wide acceptance of the need for change: staff complaints and ideas.
Without much prompting, it is relatively easy to tease out problems and solutions by asking your staff what is preventing them from doing a better job of servicing their customers or clients. People will always tend to believe data that they have generated themselves so collect this information, layer on data from other sources to further define the issues and opportunities, then use it to develop a more believable and compelling case for change.
3. Get everyone on the ship before it sets sail
It seems obvious: before you embark on a voyage to a new land you need to get everyone on board the ship before it sails. All too frequently, however, many organizations set sail with only a handful of, usually more senior, people. Later they may try to run people out on motor boats but it’s usually too late. The usual rationale for going ahead is related to time as in: ‘We need this done by last week.” Unfortunately, the result is usually a failure of some kind.
Top Tip: To be successful, you need to make sure that most people in your organization are on board first. Pick a business performance issue that everyone agrees needs to be fixed. Bring together a cross functional team of operational level staff to resolve the issue. Give them the resources, tools, time and, most importantly, the permission to make the changes required.
When they are successful, pick another issue and engage another group of staff to solve it, and so on. Before long there should be enough proof, and involvement, to persuade most doubters that successful change is possible.
This all takes time and thoughtful application, of course, and requires consistent leadership at all levels to be successful.
4. Communicate, communicate, communicate
You’ve seen this happen before: the boss makes a big announcement about a wonderful new improvement program. Following this, there’s usually a flurry of activity amongst a small, handpicked group. Sometimes there will even be three-piece suited consultants involved in apparently ‘secret’ consultations with your boss.
Eventually, this activity will result in you having to implement changes that have seemingly come out of nowhere. Doubters will seize on this ‘ivory tower’ exercise as proof that the results will be meaningless and will not work. Others will spread rumours that it’s ‘really all about layoffs,’ which will gain traction in the absence of any information to the contrary. Eventually, following pleas by frustrated executives, the improvement program will grind to a halt or be adversely skewed in some fashion.
Top Tip: Following your implementation of my previous three tips, build and implement a compelling communications plan that includes the following four components:
Articulate the concerns of those who resist change. Anticipating the negative aspects of implementing improvements from the point of view of your audience, reflect their concerns in some way such as: “I know that change is scary,” “Change takes time and effort,” “‘With any change comes disruptions of our regular routines,” “We already put out a lot of really good work around here.” Hint: always honour, never denigrate past efforts.
- Next, explain the likely consequences of not changing. Depending on your situation, these consequences can be from mild to serious, and it’s important to share these potential problems from your audience’s point of view.
- Then explain the possibilities the future holds. This is a chance to articulate your vision and goals, and what help you will need from your audience to ‘get there from here.’
- Finally, describe the transition plan you have developed to support the shift from the current to the future state. Don’t soft peddle the effort and risks, but be open and honest about what it will take to be successful.
Then say it loud, say it proud, and say it a lot, in many different ways. In his book Leading Change, John Kotter notes that many organizations fail because they “under communicate their vision by a factor of 10, 100, 1000.” The message here is that you cannot lead change by email alone. You must meet face to face with your staff as much as possible and convey the same messages, in the same way, many times. With this approach, even the people in your organization ‘from Missouri’ should get with the program.