Modern leaders are fortunate to have a host of proven continuous improvement tools like DMAIC, Standard Work, kanban, Hoshin Kanri, and more. We owe a lot to those who pioneered Lean management and other methodologies that bake quality improvement into daily business processes.
These tools are available to everyone, but not all organizations that strive for improvement achieve it. Why is that?
It's because the tools alone are not enough. The deciding factor in whether or not CI can be achieved is based on the people. Results depend on how people think, what they believe is possible, and the decisions they make big and small. In short, without a culture that supports improvement, success is unlikely.
If you've struggled to get what you want out of your improvement program, culture is the first place to look for both problems and solutions. Here are four signs that a culture isn't conducive to improvement.
1. People recognize problems but are afraid to mention them to management.
When people receive negative feedback after making a suggestion or pointing out a problem, they become conditioned to letting things slide. Leaders who are defensive or dismissive train people to keep their opinions to themselves. This is terrible for improvement work because the people who are closest to the problems are in the best position to suggest solutions. When they shut down, you lose one of your most valuable resources.
The best way to solve this problem is to invite employee feedback. Give folks a structured way to suggest opportunities for improvement, and act on those ideas. When people see that management is open to feedback, they will be less afraid to speak up, and progress will accelerate.
2. Leaders demand a positive ROI for all improvement work.
We are 100% on board with the idea that small changes that are inexpensive (or free) to implement can have an enormous return on investment. But money isn't the only reason to engage in improvement work. Sometimes the return is simply that employees feel better about the processes they operate or that a task takes a little bit less time.
In other cases, the process of improvement has its own rewards. New employees become accustomed to the techniques that they use. People get a chance to exercise their leadership skills. New tools are tried, and new skills are gained. The fact that there are no big dollar signs at the end of the rainbow is no reason to put off an improvement implementation.
3. Improvement work is not aligned with the strategic vision.
Improvement should not be made just for the sake of saying there was an improvement. Instead, it should be done purposefully to advance the overall strategy and the organization's most important goals.
Ideally, the objectives of every person, team, and department can all be rolled up to the top breakthrough goals of the organization as a whole. This requires more planning and communication than what typically occurs, but the rewards are significant. People who understand exactly how their work applies to the big picture are far more likely to engage and expend extra effort to move the ball forward.
4. Fixes are applied to symptoms rather than causes.
This problem manifests itself in many ways, but we recently spoke with a software company with a classic example. Their call center saw a big jump in the number of calls and the number of people who abandoned their call before getting help. Customer complaints about service went up, and morale went down. Management retrained the call center employees and added more staff to meet customer demand. The symptom was more calls than they could handle, and they solved it.
But eventually, someone thought to ask why the number of calls went up. Was there a pattern to the reasons behind the calls? Sure enough, there was. There had recently been a seemingly minor change to the software that confused customers. The problem wasn't a call center problem at all; it was a software problem. Reverting the change reduced the pressure on the call center.
Another example of this way of thinking is increasing inspection to keep defects from getting to the customer. In every case, it is best to dig in and find the root cause of the problem rather than to apply a band-aid to the symptom.
If you recognize any of these patterns in your organization, don't despair. They are common and solvable. The first step is to acknowledge the issue, identify the underlying conditions that contribute to the problem, and work closely with front-line employees and managers to reverse them. It won't happen overnight, but once you get a few small victories under your belt, you'll see that the rewards far exceed the effort.