5 Components to Empowering Your People for a Culture of Continuous Improvement

Lauren St.Jean
Feb 6, 2018 · 7 min read
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I’ve had the opportunity throughout my years to work with great people who can seem to move mountains. Always pushing for greatness and something better, and taking those around them with them on the journey. They inspire change in an organization, which brings out new ways of thinking leading to new ideas, new processes, and new products. Just being near them seems to send out an energy that is infectious and before you know it, everyone is doing great things and trying to improve how work gets accomplished.

I’ve also experienced the opposite. Environments where people want to make things great, but don’t know how to go about it. They see ways to improve processes, but a sense of fear, or lack of trust in the organization following through, holds them back. You need to provide your employees with a pathway to call out problems and enact improvements. A popular example is Toyota with the Andon cord (now buttons). If an employee notices a problem on the line that they can’t resolve, they just pull the cord and a manager comes to assist. This gives employees a way out to ask for help and make improvements. When you have no standard outlet for employees to voice concern, or ask for help, they start to feel helpless. One of two things usually happens, they leave to go work somewhere else, or they just learn to live with it and go about their daily work. A company can still function in this way, however new innovations will be difficult to achieve. They will they never be innovators.

People want autonomy over their work and to know they are working toward something that matters for the organization. As an organization, you want the same thing. You want your organization working as a team to solve the problems that are important to your customers. To do that, you need to let employees find the best ways to do so. Let them help improve the process to get to the best solutions, and let them determine the best answers to those solutions. Don’t prescribe solutions or limit where great ideas can come from.

It sounds hard, but it’s possible. You do have to do one small thing: change. Change is scary, but it doesn’t have to go big or go home. Small, incremental modifications have a huge impact on an organization. Similar to long-term investments. We don’t expect a return within a week on our 401k, we are willing to wait and to see what our investment grows into. The same goes for improving your organization. You don’t have make grand changes all at once, you just have to start heading in the right direction.

1. Shared goals

One of my favorite quotes is when President Kennedy interrupted his tour of the NASA space center in 1962 to ask a janitor who was sweeping the floor what he was doing. The janitor replied, “Well, Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon.”

The janitor didn’t reply with “just doing my job”, or “making money”, he was able to see how his job of keeping the facility in order tied up to NASA’s mission of putting a man on the moon. He saw the vision.

We are all working toward the same goals. We might not all directly impact the end result, but we help get it there. We all want a successful company. If you don’t know how your job roles up to the larger picture of the overall success and goals of the organization, you should start by understanding how it does. If you are senior leader, you should share the vision and goals of the company with your team and make sure everyone is aligned and working to push those goals forward.

If your team doesn’t have a vision take some time to determine the following based on Geoffrey Moore’s book Crossing the Chasm:

  • For (target customer)

At a minimum you should know the target customer, opportunity, and the key benefit of your product.

2. Shared ownership

Ever heard someone say, “That’s not my responsibility”? It’s your responsibility to help as much as you can. Maybe you can’t fix it, but you can help find someone that can, or get the ball rolling. Encourage your employees to own outcomes. We are one team and we are all responsible. If you notice something say something. From seeing a piece of trash on the floor and picking it up to throw away, to helping someone in finance find the right person in technology to connect. A job description is the bare minimum of what you do, but you are responsible for much more.

Find your shared outcomes. What are you working toward? What are your milestones? Put those up around your area or in your chat room. Review them to make sure you’re own track. Brainstorm together what you could do to get back on track if you’re not. Don’t forget to celebrate the wins. When you do hit a milestone call it out. Maybe even a small team outing or a piñata party.

3. Never stop improving

Don’t you want to love your job? Don’t you want to delight customers? Don’t you want to get to market faster with a new idea? Yes, of course you do. But you won’t do that if you aren’t constantly looking to improve your products and your internal processes. Even processes that you didn’t think of, the ones that have been there for years that everyone complains about. Change them! But how? Start small.

What is one thing we can do differently? Understand the process, look for waste, hypothesise a small change, try it out. Many times, people are scared to ask for small changes. I have definitely gone the route of asking for forgiveness rather than permission with some small changes. Did things get faster? Did it go better? These small changes will add up to big gains for your organization and you can find them in every department and every process. We will never reach perfection, but we can progress.

Start small. I’ve worked with a team recently that was always seeing tickets taking longer than expected to finish. They made a change and involved QA more throughout the entire process. They included QA’s estimates in the beginning and they saw more tickets closing since they were improving their estimates.

  • Pick one thing the team is tired of dealing with

4. Avoid the HiPPO

Avoid the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion. This can still happen to the best of us, but be aware of it. The only way to do this is to have a culture where questioning authority in a healthy way is accepted. If you happen to be the highest paid person in the room and no one ever questions you, start challenging your people. Ask them what they think of your idea, what are the weaknesses, what are you overlooking. If people aren’t questioning you, it could be a sign that there is more going on with your organization’s culture and it should be examined.

If you have a HiPPO, the best way to overcome them is with data. Like most companies, you probably have more data than you know what to do with, but it’s not always in a digestible format. Start looking into usage patterns and historical data. Look for leading indicators that can help predict future outcomes. Such as if you see a client call to complain within their first week of signing up, they have a 75% churn rate at month three. When you have leading indicators that are relative good predictors of future results, it’s much easier to have conversations around plans of action without waiting three months for data.

5. All ideas are equal until validated

The best ideas in an organization often come from the people on the ground. For example regarding product ideas, people closest to the customer or building the product often have great solutions in mind. Listen to them, don’t just brush them aside. Not all the ideas are gold mines, but put methods in place to get these ideas through a process that can validate them to see if they have merit. Be consistent with all ideas no matter who they come from, even senior leadership. Solid and timely processes around filtering ideas up and validating them will help your company keep moving in the right direction toward market leadership.

Keep trying

It may seem like a far off goal to help push your organization to continuous improvement, and it is, but once you see that first small change, you will be overjoyed and realize that it can be done. Remember to support your teams and fellow employees, and don’t forget that no matter your role in the organization, you can have an impact to shape it.

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