Continuous Improvement is Real Work

If improving something is important…make sure to invest enough time and energy. If it isn’t important, then don’t do it. Don’t waste people’s time. Continuous improvement isn’t magic…it takes work.

Sounds like common sense, right?

I’m amazed when people expect to be able improve something AND continue business as usual. In most companies, there is the “real work”, and then all the supporting, mushy, continuous improvement “stuff” (e.g. improving cross-team communication, cross-cutting initiatives, visualizing work, increasing levels of psychological safety etc.) In theory it is important, but is it?

I once worked at a company that used an annual survey to elicit feedback. The results were collated, and people self-assigned to task-forces to address the issues they cared about (provided they were not deemed too sensitive by management, e.g. compensation, work assignments, etc.). But there was no real accountability for these improvement projects, and in many cases the efforts just faded out and/or hit a wall when the task-forces tried to address the root issue(s). Certain issues popped up year after year without any substantive progress. It got to the point where people doubted the process completely.

What happened?

The “real work” got in the way, and there were no existing structures to hold people accountable to make progress on the “side work”. Plus, these groups had no real authority or autonomy. The best they could do in most cases was to make recommendations back to management, and the challenges tended to be sticky issues impacting multiple groups.

This is very common. Companies seemingly want to 1) provide an outlet for their employees (employee engagement is hot!), but 2) don’t want it to interfere in any way with business as usual.

What I think management misses is the net-effect of dangling the carrot — the potential for improvement — but failing to support these efforts fully. It is worse than never discussing the opportunities in the first place. You’re just going through the motions, and will eventually lose your best people.

So what do you do? It is better to focus on a small number of high-value improvements and actually follow through, than to encourage everyone to get involved with their pet cause, and not show any substantive progress.

First, make continuous improvement a first-class citizen. It is “real work”. Second, limit change in progress. Have the tough discussions explaining that X is important, but not AS IMPORTANT as Y, and that you’d like the team’s help with Y. Third, integrate this work into day-to-day and week-to-week rituals and artifacts (like meetings, read-outs, reviews, OKRs, etc.) Make it business as usual.