It’s All About the Work: 10 Questions

Continuous Improvement is all about the Work

One of Bill Conway’s favorite sayings has always been, “The most important business decision people make every day, is deciding what to work on.”

In fact, we’ve found that half of Continuous Improvement involves working on the right things!

Once people know what to work on, there are ten critical questions to consider, the answers to which will lead the way toward building a high-performance culture of continuous improvement:

  1. What processes should we use to identify the best opportunities for improvement?
  2. How will we prioritize the opportunities?
  3. How can we ensure or increase alignment?
  4. How will we identify what ‘could or should be’ if everything were right?
  5. What specific improvement goals shall we set?
  6. How can we involve the people closest to the work?
  7. What tools will we use to find fundamental solutions?
  8. How will we measure progress?
  9. How will we recognize and communicate progress and achievement?
  10. What is our follow-up system to assure that the processes, once fixed, stay fixed?

Leading Change

You may be familiar with John Kotter, the Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership, Emeritus, at the Harvard Business School, and the founder of Kotter International, a management consulting firm based in Seattle and Boston. He is a thought leader in business, leadership, and change.

He is known for speaking passionately about the difference between “managing” change and “leading” change.

“Management makes a system work,” Kotter explains. “It helps you do what you know how to do. Leadership builds systems or transforms old ones.”

Kotter is also well known for his 8-step process for leading change. Here is a graphic depiction:

“In a change process of any kind you must win over the hearts of people and the minds of people,” Kotter is famous for saying. “The most effective change efforts are able to get people to not only think differently, but also feel differently about the initiative.”

Feedback Formula

performance management

As noted in our previous post, an effective performance management regimen is a necessity for any organization hoping to build and sustain a high-performance culture of continuous improvement.

That post also noted that an effective process for giving feedback is a critically-important part of performance management. However, the post went on to share the results of research by Gallup indicating that only 26% of U.S. workers surveyed strongly agreed that the feedback they receive as part of their organizations’ performance management effort actually helps them to improve their work or behavior.

Fortunately, a simple four-step formula for effectively giving feedback or for sharing difficult messages in a “brain-friendly” way (so the receiver recognizes important feedback is about to be shared) was recently shared during a TED talk by Cognitive Psychologist LeeAnn Renniger.

These steps are:

Micro yes. Begin the interaction by asking a short, but important, closed-ended question to gain initial acceptance or buy-in and to give the other person a sense of autonomy (they can, after all, answer either yes or no). The objective is to get them to say, “yes.”

For example, you might ask, “Do you have five minutes to talk about yesterday’s meeting?”

Data point. To help others avoid confusion and to make sure your message is clear, make a concise and specific statement about the action or behavior you want to address. By avoiding ambiguous or “blur” words, you will enable the other person to more clearly understand the issue at hand.

For example, “During yesterday’s meeting you agreed to send a follow-up email with instructions by 11am this morning. It’s now after 3pm and I still don’t have it.”

The data point need not only refer to a negative situation. For example, “During yesterday’s meeting you shared a great example of how the order processing works best!”

Impact statement. Explain how the action or behavior impacted you.

For example, “The story really made it easier for me to understand how the process should work, and will make it easier for me to do my part going forward.”

Question. Wrap-up with another question (open-ended this time) that is geared toward confirming understanding and gaining commitment.

For example, “How do you see it?” Or “What do you think?”

While simple in structure, Renniger explained this approach is a scientifically proven method for gaining the attention of others and for giving feedback in a meaningful way.

Possibly most important, having a set of guidelines can make it easier for the feedback giver to approach potentially awkward interactions with greater levels of confidence, and to execute more effectively.

Giving Effective Feedback

twenty six percent

A recent post highlighted the fact that a proactive and consistent performance management regimen is a key pre-requisite to building and sustaining a high-performance culture of continuous improvement.

However, a recent Gallup study found that only 26% of the U.S. workforce strongly agreed that the feedback they get from managers or supervisors as part of their performance management effort actually helps them to improve their work! Clearly, and as most people agree, giving or gaining feedback can be difficult.

Further research indicates there are two primary reasons for the difficulty, which can be associated with both giving feedback or having “difficult conversations” with team members:

  1. The feedback giver is too indirect, so others don’t recognize the importance or significance of what is being shared. In fact, in many cases the feedback shared has no impact at all and is quickly dismissed or forgotten, because the brain doesn’t recognize the input as worthwhile!
  2. The feedback giver is too direct, thus causing others to become defensive; rather than listening to or giving consideration to the feedback they are distracted by what’s often called the rebuttal tendency, which means that instead of listening they are focused on how they will rebut whatever is being said. Even worse, when others react defensively it can cause the feedback giver (or seeker) to become defensive as well! Symptoms include loss of focus, sudden reliance on filler words (i.e., ah, uhm, etc.), and making potentially antagonistic remarks.

    A similar reaction to overly direct feedback is an “amygdala hijack.” It happens when a situation causes your amygdala (the section of our brains that reacts to emotional stimuli) to hijack control of your response to stress by disabling portions of the frontal lobes.

Fortunately, there is a simple formula for effectively giving feedback or for sharing difficult messages in a “brain-friendly” way, which will be the subject of our next post.

How to Improve EQ

EQ

Our previous post focused on Emotional Intelligence (EQ) and the role it plays in leadership, Continuous Improvement, and developing a high-performance culture.

Most of us are able to identify people who posses a high EQ, and some of the prevalent traits were listed in our previous post. But what about those who don’t exhibit a very high EQ?

Fortunately, according to data compiled by Richard E. Boyatzis, a pioneering researcher into leadership and emotional intelligence, Emotional Intelligence can be taught and improved.

Drawing on Intentional Change Theory (ICT), he describes five steps to the type of personal change required in order to increase emotional intelligence, which are listed below. However, it is important to recognize that the pursuit of improving EQ, like the pursuit of any sustainable change, must be intentional. The requirement is a desire for change; without that, no sustainable improvement is possible. People with no interest in developing EQ will not do so, but if they are motivated to change, the following steps will help them:

  1. Identify the ideal self. In a way, this is analogous to imagining the future state of an organization — what it would look like if everything were right — but the ideal self is much more personal. One person’s ideal self, building on his or her core identity and aspirations, will be different from another’s ideal self. Personal change starts with envisioning the ideal self — the way one would like to be, to work, and to be perceived. This has three elements: awareness of one’s strengths, an image of the desired future, and a sense of hope that the desired future is attainable.
  2. Identify the real self. Where is one, relative to one’s goals today. This step is not as easy as it sounds. The greatest challenge is to see oneself as others do. Using multiple sources of feedback, such as 360-degree evaluations can be useful.
  3. Develop a learning agenda. In contrast to a list of to-dos and complying with agendas of others, the learning agenda is development focused. It provides structure for exploration and learning.
  4. Experimentation and Practice. Practice, look for feedback, and practice again.
  5. Form helping relationships. Coaches, mentors, or guides are very helpful to someone aiming to transition to the ideal self through practicing greater EQ.

Emotional Intelligence & Culture Building

culture building

As explained in our previous post, Emotional Intelligence (E.Q.) is the phrase used to describe the ability to identify, use, understand, and manage emotions in positive ways.

It is also a capability that leaders can leverage to drive a high-performance culture of Continuous Improvement. Consider that creating a high-performing culture requires a resonant leader who can:

  • Communicate a vision
  • Inspire action
  • Drive out fear
  • Motivate truth-telling
  • Resolve conflicts
  • Create a safe place for people to exercise a passion for high quality, highly efficient work

Equipped with a heightened awareness of the most common traits associated with higher-levels of E.Q., senior leaders can enhance their ability to create a high-performance culture of continuous improvement by seeking-out and engaging those within the organization who exhibit those traits.

By exercising their ability to align and motivate people around a common vision and plan, emotionally intelligent managers and team members are very valuable in organizations desiring to create a high-performance culture and achieve ongoing improvement.

In addition, there are ways for helping people to develop stronger emotional intelligence, which we’ll share in our next post.

Emotional Intelligence, Leadership & Improvement

emotional intelligence

Our previous post focused on the important role played by “leadership” when striving to develop a high-performance culture. An important element of the necessary leadership is emotional intelligence (EQ).

As you may well be aware, emotional intelligence or EQ is the phrase used to describe a person’s ability to identify, use, understand, and manage emotions in positive ways. It has been identified as a means to relieve stress, communicate effectively, empathize with others, overcome challenges, and defuse conflict.

There are several competencies that are sometimes grouped into four major components:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-management
  • Social awareness
  • Relationship management

Research shows that organizations led by people with high emotional intelligence tend to have climates in which information sharing, trust, healthy risk-taking, and learning flourish. Conversely, organizations led by people with low levels of EQ create climates rife with fear and anxiety. While fearful employees may produce well in the short term, over the long run quality and productivity suffer.

The same principles hold true for Continuous Improvement (CI) teams. The level of EQ on a process improvement team affects how much information sharing, how much inquiry, and even how creatively the team will exercise.

A low level of EQ on an improvement team causes operational problems. Silo mentality and lack of inquiry and listening create sub-optimal processes and impaired results.

On the other hand, a team that is emotionally in step has more drive, more commitment, and tends to achieve greater things. High EQ leads to better listening, and thus to better learning, to new insights and better solutions as well.

We will look more closely at the concept of emotional intelligence over the next few posts, and will share ways to increase one’s EQ level and also how to leverage higher levels of EQ in our continuous improvement efforts.

Leadership: Another Prerequisite to Developing a High Performance Culture

leadership

Continuing with the theme of developing a high performance culture, another prerequisite to doing so is effective leadership.

This need has clearly been recognized in the marketplace as, according to data shared by Northeastern University, 58% of U.S. companies say their number one strategic priority is closing their current leadership skill gaps. The study also indicated that many more plan to increase their total spending on leadership development initiatives in the next few years— “now treating professional development as an important component of their business strategy.”

Leadership provides the energy for change and the commitment to sustain it. Today’s leaders must continually work to hone and refine a range of skills if they are to engage and lead a cultural shift.

These skills include:

  • Communication and active listening
  • Method of sharing optimism, energy and enthusiasm
  • Empathy
  • Consistency
  • Dependability
  • Motivation
  • Risk assessment
  • Delegation
  • Empowerment

In addition, creating and working with a select work group is an ideal way to exercise, analyze and improve these leadership skills.

Finally, it’s important to note that, contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to be in a C-level role to be considered a leader. Strong leaders exist—and are highly valued—at every level of business to inspire, engage, and influence their colleagues and stakeholders.

Prerequisite to Developing a High Performance Culture

company culture

Our previous post shared insights and steps for developing a high performance culture. However, an important prerequisite to launching such an initiative is to conduct an organizational assessment, which most often helps leaders think differently about options and opportunities.

A good first step in this assessment is to develop an opportunity matrix. As you may know, this type of matrix is used for numerous purposes, ranging from evaluating an organizations strengths and opportunities for growth or improvement, to identifying the best markets to pursue or products to launch.

In this case, the matrix can help you evaluate your organization’s strengths and best opportunities for achieving a high performance culture. Specific steps will include:

  • Gather input (facts and data) from people at all levels of the organization
  • Assess skill levels
  • Observe work flow to identify the bottlenecks and eddies
  • Search expansively for opportunities and focus analytically on metrics and methods
  • Create a comprehensive summary of your findings and, based on the data, identify the best opportunities for achieving the desired cultural shifts

Developing a High Performance Culture

Over the years we have consistently found that the highest achieving organizations are those that have successfully planned and developed high performance cultures.

The first step of this process involves identifying the underlying assumptions, beliefs and values that cause people to behave the way they do (the practices), and then identifying a clear link between organizational goals and individual/team/department performance.

People at all levels must also develop a clear sense of purpose, and management at all levels must devote the necessary time and attention to a proactive and consistent performance management regimen in which they promote and recognize practices that are aligned with organizational values and objectives.

The infographic below depicts one approach to this type of performance management system.

performance management system

Challenges and best practices associated with continuous improvement