I find this aspect of Continuous Improvement to be the richest and most challenging of them all. Rich because those who do this well provide us with a wealth of insights and best practices that continue to grow this field. Challenging because when a Continuous Improvement program fails it will inevitably find its causality in a failure of leadership.
Your role as a leader is absolutely crucial when it comes to implementing a culture of continuous improvement. While the journey to that place will indeed put you to the test, and it will be hard, the realization of that goal will vault you to entirely new levels of influence and understanding. The key understanding will be this; you have far more influence than you realize and your reaction to each and every challenge around continuous improvement will be watched and weighed by everyone on your team. Once you understand the depth of that influence there is no going back as a leader. You cannot simply say "I don't care how this looks or doesn't look" because you will know the impact of a decision or choice and will not be able to ignore it.
Let's explore a few ways that you can exercise your influence as a leader to promote the adoption of a continuous improvement culture on your team. First and most importantly, participate. There is a strange understanding in many places that the further up the leadership ladder you go the less you have to involve yourself in the programs implemented with your team or company. Nothing could be further from the truth. People are highly sensitive (remember that BS meter?) to the "do as I say, not as I do" approach to leadership. One of the first questions I get asked is "Will the leadership be doing this as well?" An absence of leadership participation in continuous improvement will lengthen its adoption.
Participate, get in there and go through the process and training with your team. Let them see you doing it and give them the privilege of rubbing shoulders with you in the process. Never underestimate the value of a "shared experience" in building a strong team and process.
The next thing you can practice is to activate. Getting involved in the program is actually the first step in activation. Your team sees you getting involved and they will be more comfortable getting involved as well. In addition, use your role to promote ideas and processes that your team will come up with as you work toward your continuous improvement culture. Build activation into your scheduled processes or meetings. Be the person putting continuous improvement on the agenda at meetings or bring it up in one on one discussions. All of these things will influence your team to implement and get excited about their part in the program.
Third you need to be an advocate. There are going to be hits and misses as you implement your continuous improvement culture. You need to advocate for your team on both accounts. Advocate for their ideas and plans and advocate for them when things didn't go just right or went down right sideways. In one case a supervisor felt that a principle of continuous improvement was being violated when one of his crew took responsibility for a failure in a meeting and was removed from the site. He vigorously advocated that this sent the wrong message around openness and really went to bat for that crew member. It did not change the result but the value of that leader went through the roof with his crew. That one act activated their continuous improvement culture like nothing else they had done.
Lastly, celebrate! Don't just celebrate the final product, celebrate the multiple little victories that came along the way. In creating a host of metrics and kpi's you will in fact be creating a set of opportunities to celebrate with individuals and with the team. Looks for those trends. Look for those ideas and innovations that will come and never miss an opportunity to celebrate. Remember too, every celebration doesn't have to be a party. Sometimes a simple "well done" is all it takes.
You are the fulcrum of your continuous improvement program and you exert far more influence than you realize. Remember participate, activate, advocate and celebrate. Build these into your daily continuous improvement routines and watch how it will transform your team and your leadership.
Identifying barriers to improvement is typically one of those "touchy" areas that can produce some rather vigorous discussion. This is usually because companies either don't understand the things that drive improvement and have embarked on ill thought out programs or because a team or company mandate around improvement does not align with the company culture. They talk the talk but don't walk the walk. In either case these things are usually not deliberate but still hard to swallow when you realize that your actions and programs may have had the opposite effect you were looking for. Let’s look at a couple of examples that I am sure many of you will be familiar with.
Safety has undergone a dramatic and much needed overhaul across almost every industry sector in the last couple of decades. Many great advances have been made in this area and for anyone who has been around to see the transition it is pretty impressive. Yet I run into many barriers that counter-act those well meaning intentions in the work that I have done with companies. The Safety Bonus is my favorite.
Great idea right? Hey if the crew operates safely each day or week or month (fill in the blank) they get a well deserved bonus. Safety is one of those programs that requires a continuous improvement mindset yet more often than not the concept of safety bonuses is a barrier to improvement rather than a driver of it.
In one company the safety bonus in fact drove reporting of safety incidents down. No one wanted to be the person who had a safety incident that would result in the crew losing their bonus for that day. Rather than having a rich data base of events from which to drive innovation and improvement very few events were reported and safety tended to be a hit or miss thing - pardon the pun. The company figured this out and began to implement a host of regulations around the policy in an attempt to plug the holes they kept finding. Soon they had a program which had started with the best of intentions but yet failed to deliver the performance they were looking looking for.
Right up there with safety programs is the whole "openness and accountability" program. Openness and accountability are key elements of continuous improvement but these programs often struggle or fail to take root on a team or in a company because the "talk and walk" don't match. For example, its pretty hard to get staff to be open and accountable for performance in a "one strike" setting or in a setting that does not invite vulnerability. There may be no such thing as a stupid question but believe me there are a million ways to respond to questions that will ensure that questioner never raises their hand again. Ridicule, feigned interest with no follow up, platitudes, impatience or just plain indifference are all excellent ways to put up great big barriers to improvement.
Openness and accountability are not just catch phrases they are an invitation to your team or staff to become vulnerable and get involved in working with you in achieving the bottom line. It is an invitation to have them engage because you deem them as valuable. If you are not 100% behind an initiative of this kind then please try something else. The most finely tuned sense in the work force is the BS meter. Continuous improvement and change management often hit road blocks because staff have been burned by this kind of "program" in the past, are highly skeptical and for good reason.
These are a couple of my favorite barriers to improvement but there are many out there. Your job is to make sure you know the lay of the land, analyze the potential pitfalls and barriers and remove them. Start with a mirror and move outward from there.
Some of you may have read the recent article in which a Gallup researcher indicated that employee engagement has not been impacted at all in spite of all the efforts to drive that behavior. I believe that there are a number of factors that impact this including the one that I spoke to in my last post around participation. Closely connected and a natural outcome of participation is the generation of ideas and the understanding of their value to a company and a team.
One of the key things that will evolve out of driving staff to determine measures and collect metrics around their performance is the development of opportunities lists. These are known by many things; suggestion boxes, employee input and so on but what they really represent is your employees moving from measuring and communicating to innovating or if you want idea generation. That idea generation is the gold that you want to continue to drive as a leader.
"But I already do that," you may protest and perhaps you do. The data on this issue would not indicate in your favor. An EIA (Employee Involvement Association) study on the level of employee participation around idea generation came up with some interesting results. In a quick comparison for example, an average employee in Japan will submit 32 ideas per year and in North America that number is 0.17 ideas per employee! Let that sink in for a moment.
What’s more is that the study found that the net savings per idea in North America worked out to around $7102 and in Japan to around $129. Don't pat yourself on the back just yet. At 32 ideas per year vs 0.17 there were more ideas to go around! When we factor in these numbers on a per employee basis it works out to $3612 per idea in Japan vs $398 in North America. To add insult to injury is that of the relatively few ideas that are generated on average in North American companies only 33% are adopted while in Japan that rate of adoptions is 87%.
Why so different? Perhaps we look at idea generation much less positively or we have never taken the time to understand the value of an idea. I suspect that given our propensity to be competitive we usually dismiss most idea's (or discourage them) because they are not the "home-runs" we are looking for. We want the quick fix and the million-dollar idea while our counter parts else where are more than content with ideas that create even modest savings.
The reality is that even a small idea can have a big impact. In one Japanese company the average return per idea was around $50 but when multiplied by the thousands of ideas submitted it accounted for almost $10 million in net profit in a single year. (Aubrey Daniels, - Bringing out the best in people.)
You need your strategic goals, you need your operational goals and you need your individual goals and the metrics and kpi's that go with each of these. But Continuous Improvement won't take off until those metrics begin to inform innovation and generate ideas. Like panning for gold, often what you find are small nuggets or even gold dust but over time it adds up. The lesson here is never underestimate the value of a small idea.
I can almost hear the collective rolling of the eyes! Of course we want our people to participate! Of course we are looking for a high level of employee engagement! It almost seems like one of those mom and apple pie statements that everyone would instantly agree with. And yet....?
I am not disagreeing with you, I believe that those are indeed the sentiments of the vast majority of people in leadership roles and who are trying to create a continuous improvement culture on their teams. Let me share one of best selling author Andy Andrews stories to give you an idea of where I am coming from. Five seagulls are standing on a pier and one of them decides to fly away. How many seagulls are left on the pier? If you answered 4 you are wrong. You see until the seagull actually flies away he hasn't moved at all. Intending (or agreeing with a premise) is not the same as doing or acting upon it. Starting to get the idea?
We know that continuous improvement is iterative, that is it is constantly going through the cycle of goal setting, measuring, communicating, innovating and evaluating. But when you are first trying to build that culture you have to be very aware that once your team has the goal and have started measuring their own metrics and kpi's having them move to communication and innovation will require giving them permission to participate. This will be particularly true if this move to continuous improvement is taking place in a setting where employee participation was not traditionally encouraged. It is also one of the areas that is most prone to failure. A wrong comment, a snicker from a team member or an idea being dismissed without discussion and dialogue will cement with your team that calls for participation are not real and only being used for optics for the bosses higher up. Getting them to open up after that will be a much harder and much longer task so you must be very deliberate and careful to create the kind of milieu that will nurture the participation you want.
How do you "give permission" to participate? Well, in a nutshell, you ask. Ask not just once but ask frequently. You may have a feedback loop built into your pre-shift or post-shift meetings. You may have a suggestion box or board where ideas are collected and then discussed with the team at the next meeting or it may be as simple as just walking up to a team member and asking for feedback. Asking for participation, putting it on every meeting agenda and sincerely engaging your crew in that discussion is how you give permission.
I have seen this at its inception and it is painful but if you persist you will get the participation you want and the innovation that comes with that. I recall one oil and gas company that I walked through this process and they decided to have each team member report on their metrics and performance at each pre-shift meeting. They were to report on how things went the previous shift, what went right, what went wrong and what they were going to do to address those issues on the current shift. You can imagine how threatening this would be for crew who had never been exposed to this approach. I timed the first few of these meetings and I think the longest one was just under two minutes! But then one meeting early in the process a crew member shared an issue and was stumped with how to deal with it. The assistant lead hand spoke up at that point and shared that he had experienced that issue as well and came up with a couple of suggestions that might work. It was amazing! The whole meeting opened up with team members offering experience and suggestions to each other and all because someone in leadership jumped in to acknowledge that participation and reward it. Meetings went from two minutes to almost 45 minutes literally overnight and it was deemed so important to the crews that they came in early to make sure they could do the meetings properly.
Soon they were doing post-engagement meetings and developing opportunities lists that were populated with items gleaned from those original shift meetings. Each week the opportunities list would be posted along with which ideas had been implemented. At that point if you had tried to stop the participation it would have been impossible.
Participation does not just happen. We would like to think that it is something organic to every organization but the reality is that this is simply not so. Don't feel awkward or be afraid to structure participation into your daily interactions with your team. After all they are looking to you for permission to participate.
The discussions around metrics and key performance indicators (kpi's) are often lively and everyone has an opinion regarding what a metric is and what a kpi is. In the age of big data, we are finding more and more that having a multitude of metrics actually starts to provide a context around performance even if they are not kpi's in and of themselves. More important in my estimation is the relationship of the kpi developed at the upper levels of company leadership and how that informs a kpi that a front line worker will have.
Key performance indicators are those things that a company or individual use to assess their performance. They are typically found at three distinct levels; strategic or overarching, operational leadership which are more detailed and still feed up into the strategic kpi and daily operations which are owned by the front line operations crews on an individual basis. At the front line operations level you can expect to see many kpi's because they will be specific to the unique role that each staff member has.
Strategic kpi's must be set at the corporate level and implemented at the operational leadership level but I am going to submit that in order for these to be the most effective front line operations kpi's must be set by the individual operators. The result is an interesting "top down/bottom up" dynamic that can really transform continuous improvement and here is where the role of metrics can be crucial.
A metric is simply something that is counted and tracked. Depending on the industry and product metrics can be any infinite number of things from counting minutes per call in a call center to how many orders get returned in a restaurant to measuring shots on goal in a hockey game. A metric by itself does not necessarily measure performance but in combination with other metrics can certainly suggest a strong causality. Once that causality is explored with front line crews then true kpi's can be established and tracked.
Key to this is operations leadership's discreet guidance of crews in first looking for what metrics to count and allowing those to evolve into meaningful kpi's for that staff member. The likelihood of personnel adopting a set of kpi's is directly related to whether they perceive they have developed them. To put it another way, a staff member is far more likely to drive performance toward a kpi that they have developed because they will "own" it. There is an added benefit as well in that as leadership walk staff through this process staff will see much more clearly how what they do contributes to the overall company performance goals. Powerful is a company in which everyone from the operations crews up to the president all own the companies performance!
Getting crews to start looking for and collecting metrics are a key first step in the evolution to creating powerful kpi's. In October, 1987 Paul O'Neill the CEO of Alcoa Aluminum announced a new metric that he wanted his company to focus on, safety. In his words "safety trumps profits" and he set about to change the safety culture of the company. You may ask "What does this metric have to do with continuous improvement and performance?" My response is nothing and yet everything. As the company focused on this safety metric an interesting thing began to happen. When they explored all the metrics around safety they began to uncover other metrics around production methods that produced lower grade aluminum and a host of other activities that they realized were counter productive. As operations explored these various metrics and began to see causality new key performance indicators evolved. Within the first year of implementing this program around safety company profits reached record levels!
Key too in this process is that these kpi's were developed by the staff and they owned them. Metrics are different from key performance indicators to be sure but never forget the role that looking for and tracking metrics can have in creating genuinely relevant and powerful kpi's.
When we talk about continuous improvement typically we have it fall into two categories; systems or process dynamics and people dynamics. Process dynamics is the approach that looks at all the processes in a company and is based on the premise that continuous improvement can be achieved through the application of science and data around a company’s processes. It is the approach that someone with an engineering background is most comfortable with. For them it is show me an issue and the data and I will create a process to correct it.
This was highlighted for me at one LNG plant that I did some work with. There had been a few safety incidents with golf carts. (These carts were used to get around the rather large facility) The management team was an eminently qualified group of engineers and the first response was to do a risk assessment and come up with a process change to address the perceived issue. Seat belts were made mandatory. Then there was a second incident and a second after action investigation was done and the result was that governors where put on the carts to further limit their speed. You get the idea.
This approach is valid and certainly those were sound safety systems to implement. What no-one bothered to explore was the fact that all of these incidents happened with one individual. Every time this person had a safety event with a cart a new system was put into place.
At the operational end of this process the front line leadership and crew got together and assigned a mentor to this individual and forbid him from driving the carts until the mentor was comfortable that he was ready to do so. With a little coaching they also made cart safety a highlight for the shift start meetings. Each shift someone was called on to discuss one aspect of cart safety. Those daily discussions provided a wealth of insight and innovation for the crews around this issue. This is a people dynamics approach.
Both are valid and necessary tools for continuous improvement but I am going to go reveal my bias in that I believe that in exploring continuous improvement you have to start with the people dynamic. In fact, I am certain that starting with a people centered approach will actually enhance the process dynamic of continuous improvement.
Let me share another example. In an oil and gas company I had been coaching the front line leadership and crews around implementing continuous improvement. As they started to run with it they had developed a pretty detailed agenda for post engagement reviews. They used these to assess what had gone well, what had not and what could be done to address those issues in the next engagement. All of this had developed from the bottom up and the crews and their leaders were quite pumped about it.
At the same time at the corporate level of that company someone had also been looking at what systems could be implemented that would further move the crews toward a continuous improvement mindset. Running along the exact same thinking that was now driving their crews (albeit being unaware that was happening) they implemented a new process of doing after action reviews.
I remember when the memo came out and there was almost instant resistance to it. Why? To put it simply, even though both the front line crews and the corporate leadership were actually one the same page the instant the crews had a sense that something was being "imposed" upon them from above they resisted. This was regardless of the fact that it was essentially asking them to do exactly what they were already doing! With a little coaching of their leaders we were able to convince the crews that everyone was in fact looking for the same result and so things proceeded. We were also able to coach the corporate leadership to give the front line crews an opportunity to come up with process improvements on their own.
It wasn't long before crews were coming up with process improvements that either aligned with plans that corporate had already been entertaining or were in fact new and better approaches to some of the issues that needed to be addressed. It was a win/win for everyone.
I can't tell you how many times I have seen companies struggle to implement continuous improvement through the imposition of a process dynamic approach because they had underestimated the importance of the people dynamic. Both are necessary but you may find yourself taking the long way around to that solution if you fail to put your people dynamic first.
This last absolute is really the culmination of all the others and sometimes is also the most misunderstood. Like the Hippocratic Oath leadership at its core is founded on the principle that the people who make up your team or organization have worth and need to be treated as such. That understanding drives us to provide vision, direction, get buy in, provide reinforcement for the good performance that they deliver, give them an opportunity to grow into leaders in their own right and ensure that they understand the meaning and scope of their work. All those things communicate worth.
What are some of those things that we do as leaders that are actually harmful to our people? Let’s start with honesty. When we are dishonest with our people about the things that impact them or about their performance we do harm. I am not talking about high level strategic initiatives that require a level of confidentiality in order to maintain a competitive advantage. I am talking about those day to day things that someone does that either causes you or the team irritation and yet no one wants to speak to it because no one likes conflict. Or it could be performance related or just something as simple as "fit" where someone seems to be having trouble fitting in with the group. If we are honest about it, we avoid those conversations and hope that it will fix itself. In case you missed it, not telling someone about an issue that you are aware of is as dishonest as lying about it.
Here is something to consider; from an objective level what is more painful, watching someone struggle with either performance or fit and ultimately fail or sitting down with that person to come up with a plan that honestly addresses the issues. That’s not to say that failure may still happen but at least they had a chance to make it work and they knew you had their back.
Here is the other nuance that we often don’t think about when dealing with staff. When you do or don’t step up to address those staff issues you send a very clear message to the other staff on your team. Is that message a confidence booster or a morale deflator? In a recent survey 45% of respondents cited trust of their leaders as a major factor regarding productivity. You may think you are only avoiding the one issue but in reality you may well be creating a host of others – be frank, be honest and always from a perspective of sincerely wanting what’s best for that person.
Another way we can harm our staff is the proverbial “throwing them under the bus!” I wish I could say this does not happen often but we all know that would not be true. Sadly, it is also the surest sign of a weak leader. We all want our teams to function with a high level of accountability but how many times has someone been rewarded for that with a rap on the knuckles or worse. The hardest thing to learn as a leader is to admit when you have erred and “own” it. Placing the blame on an underling only inhibits productivity. Its pretty hard to throw yourself into something wholeheartedly when you are constantly wondering whose head will roll if something goes wrong. As we are fond of saying in the “patch” “Nobody moves, no-one gets hurt.” And of course, nothing gets done.
Even when something goes wrong that clearly belongs to someone in your team you should be the first in with assessment and remedy and be working to mediate between your staff and your leadership. The bottom line is this; in most cases their failure is really your failure.
I am sure that there are as many ways to do harm to staff as there are policy manuals on the planet. Let me leave you with one last idea on this. Don’t harm your team with what you permit. This may sound strange but we have all done it. When someone gossips about a fellow team member, when someone continually shaves more and more time off each working day with breaks, when someone consistently breaks a safety policy around eye protection or when someone is constantly grousing about company projects or leadership and you permit it you are harming them and your team. When you don’t address these types of behaviors they become unwritten policy. How many times have your kids said to you “but daddy (or mommy) didn’t say anything the last time?”
Your team, no matter how big or small, is your team. Nurture them and be their catalyst for success. You have more influence and power as a leader than you realize, be sure to use it for good and not for harm.