Tag Archives: leading a culture of continuous improvement

Leading a Culture of Innovation & Continuous Improvement

Tying recent posts together, and spring-boarding off a good comment shared about “the biggest waste lying in the ranks of poor leadership,” this post focuses on the critically-important role leadership plays in developing and sustaining a culture of innovation and continuous improvement.

Simply stated, given the challenges of creating a consistently effective innovative organization, nothing is more important
than leadership.

It requires powerful leadership skills to empower and unleash an organization’s creative talents and energy. In an organization without strong leadership, inspiring and empowering people to contribute their ideas innovations will be scarce. An innovative culture is not the default position — it must be carefully created.

But empowerment, important as that is, is nowhere near enough.

Leadership must also create a challenging vision around which to rally the organization’s creative energies. This vision must be grounded in a deep understanding of the market and of the daily struggles of the people who make up that market.

Understanding the market is much easier for a small company where everyone deals with real customer needs every day. But as organizations grow, they expand like a balloon — more mass and less surface area. The surface area has the chance to get close to the external customer’s needs.

So, as a company grows, leadership must maintain or create a mechanism that will ensure that an  understanding of the customer’s needs can penetrate beyond the surface area into the heart of the organization. The same is true of internal functions that work together like a chain of customers. As organizations grow, departments grow and they too develop ‘more mass and less surface area’ — creating the familiar silo phenomenon.

In addition, leadership of innovative organizations must, without stifling creativity, challenge the organization’s efforts with the necessary, market-driven constraints. Without the right constraints,
empowerment cannot succeed. It is too easy to become satisfied with a creative idea before it has been developed into something really workable. An organization that tries to empower innovation without creating the right market-driven constraints, can easily suffocate in an avalanche of incomplete or impractical ideas.
Because they are not fully developed to address the real, but perhaps unspecified, constraints, the ideas cannot be implemented and quite soon people cease to feel empowered.

This is a tall order, and it becomes easy to see why innovation isn’t easier to come by despite all the human talent and energy brought to bear. But creating an innovative culture is, in itself, a creative challenge. By increasing our understanding of the challenges and constraints, we increase our ability to focus our own leadership talents on the right things to make it happen.

Leading the CI Charge

culture2Among the highest achieving organizations are those that have  successfully planned and developed high performance cultures of continuous improvement.

Management promotes this culture by truly valuing the workforce, fostering open communication, and both educating and empowering people to think outside of the box, with amnesty, as they seek innovative ways to study and improve the work and work processes.

These organizations also tend to have a highly-engaged workforce in which most people have an emotional attachment to their work. These engaged employees are willing to go “the extra mile” because they  feel that they are part of something bigger, working on behalf of the organization and its goals.

But Continuous Improvement and Engagement are top-down-driven strategies.  Without the support and commitment of senior management, neither concept can become the cultural way.

“A culture of continuous improvement begins with leadership,” said John Knotts, a business professional leader and consultant in Austin, Texas.  “If it is not understood, influenced, and supported by leaders, it is doomed to struggle and fail.  Thus, it takes significant leadership engagement to create a culture where all employees are continuously improving what they do every day.”

The same is true about engagement, as summarized by Doug Brown, President of Engaged2Perform, a consulting company in Waterloo, Canada, who said, “If senior leadership doesn’t buy in or doesn’t understand engagement, the company isn’t likely to have engagement polices… even top corporate executives who are aware of engagement practices aren’t always aware of the financial return they can deliver.”

Finally, possibly Costco’s Jim Sinegal summed it up best when he said,  “Culture is not the most important thing, it’s the only thing”