People most often agree that the “hard” part of Continuous Improvement (CI) isn’t making improvements, but rather making it “continuous!”
In a past newsletter we entitled this reality as “Discontinuous Improvement,” noting that two things common to a high percentage of CI efforts are:
They produce some improvements
Then they peter out
For an organization to go through a cultural change so that “continuous” improvement becomes the new way of working and not just a one-time program, we need to pay close attention to the softer part of the improvement model. This will enable us to smooth the path, remove the obstacles, and continue to lead, communicate, and motivate both emotionally and intellectually.
Following are six common causes of discontinuous improvement, which hopefully your organization can avoid:
Neglecting aligning individual or team goals with those of the organization
Insufficient communication between management, the workforce, project teams and CI leaders
Delegating leadership, which is a responsibility that should stay with senior management
Manager’s or Sponsor’s failure to remove obstacles
Lack of quick success
Letting-up on the “gas” when initial results are made
Communication is a vitally-important component of Continuous Improvement (CI) within an organization. Consider that, even if a team applies the CI methodology to great success but no one hears about it, the goal of making CI a cultural way of doing business will not catch on.
Good communication can also be a key driver of profitability as, if nothing else, it can reduce or eliminate the cost of miscommunication.
For example, an article published by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) referenced a survey of 400 companies with 100,000 employees each that cited an average loss per company of $62.4 million per year because of inadequate communication to and between employees.
Even smaller businesses of 100 employees suffer the impact of miscommunication, the article suggested, as it went on to quote Debra Hamilton’s article “Top Ten Email Blunders that Cost Companies Money,” in which she stated miscommunication cost these smaller businesses an average of $420,000 per year.
Clearly miscommunication is expensive!
Yet facilitating consistent and open internal communication is one of the many things in life that might be simple, but not necessarily easy.
For example, Bruce Bolger, Co-Founder of the International Center for Enterprise Engagement, shared an interesting observation recently when he said, “Most organizations put far more effort into communicating with customers than with employees.”
We’ve found Mr. Bolger’s comments to be accurate. In many cases, customer communication is the higher priority, thus making it easy to put internal communications on the back burner. In other instances, the “silo” approach to operations tends to result in haphazard internal communication.
To gain the best results from internal communication efforts, leaders might do well to focus on employees as “internal customers.” Maybe then it will become easier to formalize and value internal communication protocols.
As noted in recent posts, many of us are struggling with the sudden shift to working remotely. Among the challenges involved is lack of clarity with respect to expectations and, in some cases, organizational mission.
In fact, reestablishing expectations or mission, and providing the tools necessary to get the job done are two of today’s most important leadership tasks according to a recent Gallup article.
Silver Lining? Certainly, these realities pose a challenge for leaders at all levels. But might there also be a silver lining?
Consider that over the past decade the majority of workforce engagement efforts have failed to yield tangible results and have failed the sustainability test. Current research shows that because these efforts tended to be ad-hoc, lacking defined, measurable objectives, they were prone to failure.
However, a more focused approach of improving both the work and the workplace in a measurable way can result in high-levels of productivity, profitability and engagement; and now might be the ideal time to launch such an effort, as remote team members struggle to maintain both productivity and engagement levels.
Even better, this more focused approach to productivity/improvement and engagement can (and should!) continue when we all “return to work,” thus transforming yesterday’s workplace into a more highly engaged and productive one.
To accomplish this, organizational leaders should focus on two key objectives:
Providing productivity and continuous improvement tools and programs as catalysts to engagement
In our previous post we shared reasons why leaders at all levels (as opposed to “just CEO’s or Senior Management”) must step-up to engage their team members during this time of need.
While that post identified important areas of focus based on employee surveys and polls, this post identifies three key managerial best practices that will help leaders improve the effectiveness of their efforts to help and support team members:
Communication is critically important. A recent Harvard Business Review article states, “Communication is often the basis of any healthy relationship, including the one between an employee and his or her manager… consistent communication – whether it occurs in person, over the phone, or electronically – is connected to higher engagement.”
However, Gallup research also indicated that “mere transactions between managers and employees are not enough to maximize engagement. Employees value communication from their manager not just about their roles and responsibilities but also about what happens in their lives outside of work.”
This perspective aligns well with the data shared in our previous post
Effective performance management is also important, but it must go beyond the “annual review.” Given the significant and rapid changes we are all experiencing in day-to-day protocols, many people do not clearly understand their goals or what is expected of them. They may feel conflicted about their duties and disconnected from the bigger picture.
Consequently, managers must more frequently discuss and possibly redefine mission, priorities, achievement and expectations.
Focus on people’s strengths. Given the above-referenced changes in protocols, this might involve some reassigning of responsibilities – especially for those who are struggling to maintain productivity while working remotely.
Gallup researchers have discovered that building employees’ strengths is a far more effective approach than a fixation on weaknesses. In the current study, a vast majority (67%) of employees who strongly agree that their manager focuses on their strengths or positive characteristics are engaged, compared with just 31% of the employees who indicate strongly that their manager focuses on their weaknesses.
An English proverb says, “Cometh the hour, cometh the man.” It’s the idea that the right leaders will emerge or step up during times of crisis.
In numerous posts we have shared data substantiating the fact that the greatest work-related impact comes from our direct supervisor. So, it’s not just CEO’s or top management, but rather leaders at all levels that must step-up to help people during this time of need.
A March 23rd Gallup article reinforced this point. “The supervisor or manager is the key conduit…” the article stated. “Only the direct manager can know each employee’s situation, keep them informed, and adjust expectations, coaching and accountability to inspire high performance.”
The question then becomes, how might we lead and inspire employees during this pandemic that’s creating anxiety and uncertainty everywhere?
The article provided some straightforward guidelines. “Global citizens look to leadership to provide a path — and to provide confidence that there is a way forward that they can contribute to. In times of crisis, there are two directions human nature can take us: fear, helplessness and victimization — or self-actualization and engagement. On the latter, if leaders have a clear way forward, human beings are amazingly resilient.”
The piece went on to share meta-analytics, which have found four universal needs that followers have of their leaders:
“These needs are especially urgent during crises,” the article said. “People look for these traits in their leaders as a signal that their life will be OK and that they can be part of the solution.”
Surveys Say:Room for Improvement Among the most important actionable organizational practices to address these four needs, Gallup listed the following along with the results of their most recent tracking:
Identify a clear plan of action: When asked if their company leadership had a clear plan of action, 39% of U.S. employees strongly agreed that their employer had done so.
Make sure people are prepared to do their jobs: When asked if they felt well-prepared to do their job, 54% strongly agreed.
Orchestrate a plan for supervisors to keep people informed: When asked if their immediate supervisor was keeping them informed, 48% strongly agreed.
Make sure employees know that the organization cares about their well-being. Gallup has found five elements of well-being that each organization can act on: career, social, financial, community and physical. When asked if their organization cared about their overall well-being, 45% strongly agreed.
This data might be useful to us all as we navigate our way forward during the COVID-19 crisis. It also shows there is room for improvement.
Our previous post shared reasons why amnesty and the freedom to share opinions, observations or ideas are critically important requirements to running the most effective project team meetings.
Given the fact that a substantial percentage of all team meetings take place in a remote or virtual forum, and that the COVID-19 situation is driving that percentage up in a hurry, we thought people might find the following best practices helpful in their efforts to run the best remote meetings.
The Value of Remote Forums Lack of visual contact, technical difficulties, equipment malfunctions, and declining attention spans are only some of the challenges associated with the typical “remote” meeting. Given these issues, it’s tempting to determine that virtual forums are not productive.
But in reality, the many cost, logistic and convenience related advantages far outweigh the negatives. Even better, by making a few key adjustments to meeting protocols and communication style, team leaders and facilitators can quickly transform remote meetings into highly productive and positive experiences.
4 Steps to the Best Remote Meetings While all “standard meeting management” rules apply, there are a few additional requirements for virtual sessions, which can apply to any type of remote staff or project team meeting:
Strategic preparation is the first step toward running the best remote meetings, as a strong leader who creates and uses an agenda and who communicates proactively is a must.
The meeting leader must plan these virtual sessions to be more interactive than in-person meetings. Depending upon the purpose of the remote gathering, a meeting leader’s ideal “talk/listen” ratio will range between 30/70 and 60/40. Therefore, the advance plan must include both “speaking points” and “questions.” Both open-ended and closed-ended questions should be included in the plan so the leader will be able to more easily promote interaction or curb the discussion to keep it on track.
A roll call form with space for making notes during the meeting should also be created, which will also be a useful tool for engaging participants during the session.
The next step involves effectively running the remote session. The leader should call-in or log-in a few minutes early and greet participants as they arrive, thus beginning the engagement process. During these early minutes it’s best to ask questions about subjects that are NOT on the meeting’s agenda. The goal is to connect with the individuals, make them feel comfortable and promote their active participation in the remote meeting.
It’s important to start on time, even if everyone has failed to call in or join. If people join late, it’s appropriate to offer a brief welcome but continue with the meeting’s discussion. Stopping to bring late-comers up to speed will diminish the experience for other participants and indirectly encourages the wrong behavior.
Open with a brief roll call (a good way to test audio) and then identify ground-rules with respect to cell phone use, a disconnect plan, how questions will be handled, general etiquette, and how people should use tools such as chat, mute, and the hold button. Then make a clear statement of the meeting’s objectives.
From this point forward, the leader should promote an appropriate level of interaction by incorporating questions into the discussion — as a rule of thumb, two-to-four times as many questions than might be posed in a face-to-face meeting. It’s best to direct these questions to individuals by name and avoid questions that are directed to the entire group, such as, “Does anybody have a question?” While it is common and acceptable to pose questions to the entire group in a live meeting, it is far less effective in a virtual meeting. The reason for this is simple: the visual contact in a live meeting allows everyone to easily see who has a question or who wishes to be heard. But in a remote forum, the most common result of “group-directed” questions is confusion — either no one says anything because no one is sure whose turn it is to speak, or several people pose questions or offer input at the same time.
A notation should be made next to each participant’s name on the roll-call sheet each a question is directed their way, and some of the things they say in response should be noted as well. The leader can then use those notes to occasionally refer back to a comment or answer given by a participant — this will further engage those individuals and also promote more active participation from the group.
If the leader detects waning attention spans or a drop in the group’s enthusiasm, the best course of action is to vary the information flow. Assigning a short (2 to 3 minutes) written exercise is a often a good way of accomplishing this. At the end, each person can be asked to share a portion of what they’ve written.
Ending the session properly is very important. At the end of many remote meetings participants simply hang-up or disconnect without drawing conclusions or setting next steps. The meeting leader can avoid this “flat” ending and also improve the session’s productivity by conducting a formal wrap-up a few minutes prior to the meeting’s scheduled conclusion. A few best practices for an effective summary include:
End with the beginning by restating the meeting’s purpose
Assign or gather agreement on next steps
Debrief the session by gathering feedback from some or all of the participants
Acknowledge good participation and thank the group.
Follow-up is the last, but certainly not the least important, step. As the meeting leader, there are several ways to promote productive outcomes and to hold people accountable for completing agreed-upon or assigned tasks. These include distributing a summary or meeting minutes (if someone had been assigned to record them), reaching out to participants for an update on or to offer support for agreed-upon next steps, and, of course, beginning to plan the next meeting!
We have often referenced the importance of “amnesty” in the realm of Continuous Improvement. If people are not comfortable talking about problems and process complexities, either out of fear of retribution or criticism, then it will be impossible to achieve a high performing culture of improvement.
One place where the freedom to share opinions, observations or ideas is critically important is in project team meetings. In support of the above-stated position regarding amnesty, a recent Harvard Business Review article shares some excellent perspective on “making your meetings safe.”
In the piece, author Paul Axtell shares an excellent example based on input from a young engineer and his supervisor Josh. This engineer worked on several project teams within a manufacturing facility. His story is as follows:
“Josh, my manager, would take everyone out for pizza when he came to the factory, and we’d have a ‘no secrets’ meeting. Josh asked us about whatever he wanted to know and we did the same in return. It was a meeting where everyone had permission to say or ask anything. It was amazing.”
The article goes on to explain how the manager, Josh, used these meetings to discover how his team was doing, how their projects were progressing, and what they needed in terms of support and resources. He asked broad questions to initiate open conversation, such as:
What do you think I need to know?
Where are you struggling?
What are you proud of?
This approach is well-aligned with ours. When the people closest to the work are confident that their ideas or suggestions for improvements will be honestly considered without recourse they are ideally suited for engaging in true Continuous Improvement. But without the “amnesty” to speak their mind or share their observations, the organization is doomed to live in the “status-quo.”
As Axtell put it, “The quest for better meetings ultimately lies in leading with mutual respectful, inclusivity, and establishing a space that is safe enough for people to speak their minds.”
Our previous post referenced recent research indicating that the percentage of engaged workers in the U.S. has risen this past year, and that the primary reason for this increase is that organizations have made positive changes in how they develop their employees.
Carrying that thought a bit further, leaders at all levels within an organization must also be developed in order to bring about sustainable change and improvement. We have always known that it is a person’s immediate supervisor that has the greatest impact on their work experience and engagement level, so it stands to reason that these leaders must be trained and developed so that they can be effective.
To develop strong leaders, we have found the following five steps are critically important:
Training is an ongoing step. Leaders at all levels must understand leadership styles and how to diagnose the circumstances requiring leadership so they can apply the most effective style. Related skills and behaviors also include communication and listening, motivation, delegation, recognition and empowerment.
360° feedback from peers, staff members and upper management is a popular and insightful component of leadership development.
Coaching in a team environment is an ideal place in which to exercise and improve peoples’ leadership skills, self awareness and ability to build upon strengths.
Individual mentoring can help people analyze personal effectiveness and refine their approach based on actual performance and achievement. Mentors should observe leaders’ performance and conduct personal debriefing sessions. This cycle continues until desired skills and performance levels have have been achieved.
Accountability. All leaders are held accountable for their personal development as well as for developing others.
One of our white papers shares the concept of CPI2, which refers to the combination of Continuous Process Improvement (CPI) and Continuous People Improvement (CPI) as an effective way of boosting both employee engagement and productivity. It is based on the premise that productivity is the key driver of employee engagement (or the employee experience), as people like to feel successful… they like to be part of a winning and productive team… and they like to feel their work is important.
More recently, the concept of CPI2 has been indirectly referenced in an article published by Gallup, which reveals that employee engagement levels reached an all-time high in 2019.
According to their research, the percentage of “engaged” workers in the U.S. reached 35% this past year. While 35% might strike you as a low number, it is actually a new high since Gallup began tracking the metric in 2000.
This increase in engagement levels is good news for all of us…
As you may know, engaged workers are highly involved in their work. They go about their work enthusiastically, they treat customers better, they make a stronger discretionary effort compared to their dis-engaged co-workers, and they are committed to both their work and workplace.
So clearly, the increase in engaged workers is good for employers.
But this increase is also good news for employees and other stakeholders! It’s good news because it shows that the more formalized plans for engaging people are working; it’s good news because it means more people are finding greater levels of fulfillment in their work. As Dr. Deming said, “Management’s overall aim should be to create a system in which everybody may take joy in his work.”
So, it’s also fair to say that this increase in engagement levels is good news because it bears witness to the fact that the process of workforce engagement can yield win-win outcomes for both employers and employees.
Why the Increase? If you’re wondering why the number of engaged workers has risen, Gallup has a straightforward answer.
“There are several possible explanations for the changes in engagement over the past decade,” the article states. “…and Gallup has reviewed many of these previously, from changes in the economy to slight improvements in some employee benefits. But these factors are not the primary drivers of improved engagement.
“Gallup research indicates that changes in employee engagement are best attributed to changes in how organizations develop employees.“
The article also shares four themes that Gallup’s research identified in organizations with high-development cultures:
High-development cultures are CEO- and board-initiated.
High-development cultures educate managers on new ways of managing — moving from a culture of “boss” to “coach.”
High-development cultures practice company-wide communication.
High-development cultures hold managers accountable.
Room for Improvement & CPI2 However, the article also goes on to acknowledge that a 35% engagement percentage is still low.
“The percentage of engaged employees in the U.S. is still far too low,” the article states. “There is plenty of room for improvement… What would the world of work look like if organizations could double the percentage of engaged workers? This isn’t a pie-in-the-sky question — all evidence suggests it is possible. Organizations have been successful, over recent decades, in maximizing process efficiency through Six Sigma and advances in technology and automation — doubling engagement would mean U.S. organizations have matched process efficiency with people efficiency.”
Our two previous posts have focused on common barriers to innovation, so it seemed only logical to share some of our observations as to how organizations have overcome these barriers by leveraging various catalysts or “enablers” to innovative thought and behavior.
But be advised, these methods require strong and empowering leadership to lay out the market constraints, make clear the threats from the changing environment and the opportunities that may arise, and provide the amnesty to take a risk to put ideas and observations on the table.
Necessity – “the mother of invention” When Xerox PARC created the mouse, it was simply amazing. And it cost $300 to build and only worked for a few weeks, but they had a generous budget so it was okay. Yet to make the mouse truly innovative required something quite different: constraints. Steve Jobs had the vision to add the constraints: the mouse must be buildable for under $15 and operate reliably for at least two years.
For successful innovation, you need people to seek out the real-world constraints that must be respected in order to actualize the idea. Until the idea can work within the constraints — like Apple’s mouse — it is still in the germination stage, not yet a true innovation.
“Freedom is just another word for nothing to lose” It’s often easier to try something new or innovative, and to risk failure, when the status quo looks pretty untenable. As the saying goes, never waste a crisis, and if you don’t think you have one, look further around you. Change is inevitable; a threat is always on its way.
For example, one company observed that when their very survival was at risk, they began to implement a program of Continuous Improvement that called on everyone to contribute innovative implementable ideas. Because they had to develop new and better ways of operating, they did!
Similarly, a start-up company with few resources must innovate or quickly wither away. Or an established organization might need to make innovative changes due to operational disruption. For example, if the system or tool or supplier or technology they are using is going away or changing, it is a good time to rethink the work entirely.
It’s important to recognize that leaders must provide amnesty to reduce the risk of sharing new ideas when making these types of innovative changes.
It’s easier to think outside the box when you are from outside the box Outsiders often come up with the best innovations, because they have no ties to the status quo. But outsiders often have a difficult time effecting real change because they are outsiders. A senior manager of a once innovative company wryly observed, “We say we like to bring in outsiders with fresh ideas, but when they share them we explain that’s not the way we do it here.”
Know the market; know your customers — internal as well as external Market instincts are more valuable than technological know-how or financial heft. For example, in Malcolm Gladwell’s fascinating article in The New Yorker, Creation Myth — Xerox PARC, Apple, and Creation of the Mouse, he suggests that Xerox could never have capitalized on the mouse because they did not have the instincts for the consumer market. They had the technological talent, but that was simply not enough; personal computing is a consumer market and Xerox’s reservoir of market instincts was for commercial enterprises. Steve Jobs knew the consumer market. Similarly, Cisco was forced to close down its Flip video and HP pulled out of the tablet market — both retreated from consumer markets back to their core markets.
Process innovation also requires getting close to the customers. To be able to innovate work processes, you must go to the work. ‘Go to the Gemba (or work place),’ is the Toyota mantra. Asking customers what they need or want is simply not going to be enough. They cannot innovate for you — you must go and watch them use your product to really understand the market. You must go and watch the work flow in order to understand the processes and the problems that workers grapple with. You must see for yourself in order to envision a better product or process.
Imagine Perfection Last but not least, to foster process innovation summon the courage to acknowledge the deep areas of waste that are part of our standard work. We all have this: inspection or rework or moving or waiting that is so intrinsically a part of the way we work that we cannot envision the work without it. Because we cannot immediately think of any possible alternatives, we look the other way and thus we cannot innovate.
Summon the courage to put that waste on the table, calling it what it is. We have seen remarkable feats of innovation inspired by this simple act — recognizing waste for what it is. Go ahead and imagine the process without the steps that add no real value — that just compensate for a flaw somewhere in the process — and then take the time to search for ways to get to that vision. Imagine perfection or the way things could or should be if everything was right.
Challenges and best practices associated with continuous improvement