Striking the right balance when leading a culture of continuous improvement is tough. You have to figure out how to engage your employees without overburdening yourself, gather key metrics without spending a lot of time on it, along with countless other behaviors that will make or break the spread of improvement in your organization.
Here are six common blunders that many leaders of continuous improvement need to stop making:
Thinking (or pretending) that leaders have all the answers
Today’s most successful leaders of improvement and innovation recognize that their front line employees are their greatest assets. They are closest to the organization’s worst problems, and as such, have a distinct vantage point from which to identify opportunities for improvement and then hone in on solutions. As a leader, it’s important to recognize that you don’t have all of the answers, and respect the knowledge of the people that do. You should be coaching people in identifying, testing, and evaluating opportunities for improvement rather than directing every detail of their improvement efforts. It’s your job to set goals and strategic initiatives; let your employees get you there.
Focusing all time and resources on big ideas
It’s a common mistake to pursue the next “million dollar idea” at the expense of smaller improvements. When employees are empowered to make daily low-cost, low-risk improvements to their work, those smaller impacts really add up. What’s more, you get the same end result without devoting massive amounts of time and resources into implementing a grand scheme. As Linus Pauling once said, “The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.” Our customers’ data shows that roughly 2.5% of their implemented ideas have an impact of $10,000 or more. As for the rest of their more than $71 million dollar impact? That’s accumulated from lots of little improvements.
Asking for ideas and implementing very few
While some leaders squash continuous improvement by taking an overt stance against challenging the status quo, it’s becoming increasingly more common for leaders to stop improvement more discreetly (and perhaps even accidentally). How do they do this? They do it by politely accepting any and all improvement ideas - for example, in a suggestion box - and then actually implementing very few of them. This hurts engagement in continuous improvement because people rapidly lose enthusiasm for the program when they see that, though they may be asked to share their ideas, nothing actually happens. To be an effective leader of continuous improvement, it's important to empower people to implement most of their ideas
Shouldering the burden of all improvements
This is the mistake I personally see most often - managers feeling as though the burden of implementing all of those improvements falls squarely on their shoulders. Leaders that effectively spread continuous improvement do so by delegating. They empower other people at all levels of the organization to take the lead on their own improvements. Of course, they continue to provide coaching when necessary in order for people to understand best practices and arrive at better conclusions.
Think about it logically; if you have one manager implementing one improvement per week, you get a maximum of 52 improvements per year. If that manager coaches all 50 of his employees and empowers them to each make one improvement per week, you get 2,600 improvements. That’s the power of true employee engagement.
Relying on meetings for communication
Relying too heavily on meetings for improvement project communication means slowing down the improvement process. People are forced to wait until the next meeting to get their questions answered, the meetings drag on through numerous status updates, and projects often languish between meetings. Perhaps most importantly, too, coaches may miss opportunities to educate staff and redirect improvement efforts before someone has spent a week working on the wrong thing.
The smarter way to utilize meetings is to include activities that require two-way communication, such as debating or discussing a path forward, or as a venue for group decision making. Basic communication and all of those other details can easily be managed in continuous improvement software, which empowers staff to get more done between meetings and gives leaders visibility into what staff are doing.
It’s important to set goals, such as wanting everyone to come up with at least one improvement each month, but it’s critical that you don’t let that goal become a hard set quota or a target.
When you introduce a quota, your employees are no longer motivated by a desire to improve their organization, but by fear that they will be reprimanded if they fail to meet that target. So instead of your employees looking around and finding what really needs to be improved, you have people submitting the first idea that pops into their head and panicking over getting their improvement done in time. Even without the threat of punishment, similar dysfunctions can occur when a reward or positive incentive is offered. The focus, there, also shifts from improvement to the artificial incentive.
That is not a healthy culture of continuous improvement. People want to improve, so you need to tap into that intrinsic motivation. You want to engage your employees, and provide recognition and support. Setting goals gets everyone pulling in the same direction, without the negative pressures of quotas.
Learn more about effectively leading a culture of continuous improvement in this free eBook: