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.