Continuous improvement—the ongoing effort to advance products, services, the way we work, people, you name it—is a journey filled with ups and downs, wins and fails, knowns and unknowns, breakthroughs and disappointments. It is an endless ride of incremental development and incremental satisfaction.
The intrinsic desire to improve can be seen in many organizational leaders and individuals. Why, then, does the subject of continuous improvement and measurement often fall on deaf ears within the workplace? The mere mention may even get the eye roll.
What is it about getting to higher performance as teams, programs and organizations that does not resonate with a pocket of employees, when it is essential to staying relevant as a business?
There are several challenges that can stifle our natural desire to do better, including an unclear purpose, misaligned goals, lack of knowledge and inaccessible data. This is intensified when we value keeping busy with the wrong work over staying relevant. The overall result is an inability to contribute meaningfully to customers.
Purpose & Flow
In his Psychology Today article entitled “The Power of Purpose,” author Steve Taylor says, “purpose is closely linked to ‘flow.’ If you have a strong sense of purpose, you’re likely to experience flow more frequently. The more flow we experience, the happier we feel. So long as we feel that we are successfully dealing with challenges and moving closer to our goal, our self-confidence increases. We feel a sense of competence and achievement, an enhanced ability to deal with difficulties and challenges.”
Individual purpose and flow is not so different from the purpose and flow associates need to feel at work. Today’s accelerating pace, complete with a steady flow of disruptive changes, can make purpose cloudy and goal-setting more complex.
In the absence of purpose, delivering what matters to those who matter, no longer seems to matter. Associates end up doing just to do, without any desire to do better. They sink into a comfort zone, repeating what they know.
Employees need to understand their purpose and work toward goals that align to it. When times change, they need to know how to adapt quickly but stay true to their drive. Creating a climate of “busy-ness” that has no clear meaning—other than keeping busy—creates wasted effort and apathetic employees.
Associates need to appreciate customer expectations and measure customer satisfaction. They should be able to speak to the value of their work, and understand why it is urgent, the cost of delay and why it has been prioritized. They need to understand the key measurements the organization uses to assess its value to the customer. Without this, they cannot improve their contributions to the organization.
Time & Environment
Lack of desire may not be the issue when it comes to the lack of self-reflection and improvement efforts, however. Teams are often pressured with lists of work to deliver, leaving little time for reflection or focus on the customer. They do not have time to think unconventionally, they are too focused on delivering the lists.
Delivering gives employees a sense of accomplishment, and not delivering reduces self-esteem and the feeling of flow. So delivering anything in a culture that values busy-ness may be more satisfying than continuous improvement, which can look and feel like a long road ahead.
The danger however, is that without continuous improvement, even the ability to deliver anything will deteriorate. More time will be consumed with band-aids, deepening the debt and leaving no time for meaningful contributions.
Organizations need to create a culture and environment that allows time for and encourages optimization. This includes the optimization of products, services and delivery capability. Associates need to be motivated and organized in such a way that they can improve and innovate repeatedly.
- Understanding systems: the customers, the services provided, areas of dissatisfaction, the demand and the flow of work
- Removing waste: rejecting the wrong work and eliminating outdated methods of working
- Optimizing delivery capabilities: establishing policies that allow the right work into the system, enable the work to flow, and allow ongoing improvement
- Organizing around the work: 1) teams to improve products and services, 2) teams to optimize delivery and; 3) teams to innovate
This means forgetting about what may have served the company well and redesigning the company for success moving forward.
Data & Knowledge
Leaders at all levels need to collect data, analyze metrics and gather insights. They need to turn insights into meaningful improvement actions.
The challenge is that associates may not know where or how to start. They may not have access to the data. Customer feedback loops may not be established and even if they are, they may be fragmented, and data sharing may not be happening from end to end.
The system’s end to end team needs to work closely together to ensure all associates understand their customers and the services they provide. They need to acknowledge sources of customer dissatisfaction and respond in a timely manner. This will provide the context for improvement.
Teams need to experiment and measure. How do they know what to measure? To answer that, they need to decide what question they are trying to answer. What needs to be solved for? What needs to be optimized? They need to look to the context for improvement to guide their efforts. This data and knowledge needs to be embedded in every employee’s day-to-day operations.
Embedding continuous improvement into the day to day is a culture shift that requires leadership at all levels. It requires deep commitment for the long term.
It is not just products and services that need continuous improvement, but also the company’s very way of working. The alternative is that everyone keeps doing things “the way they’ve always been done.” And the chances of “the way things have always been done” being enough to keep up are pretty slim.
As individuals, we have an innate desire to improve. But within the workplace, there must be purpose, goals and an environment that supports and encourages that drive. It is a long journey of continuous effort, but it is absolutely essential to business success.