One of the most common arguments we hear from people regarding why they’re unable to create a culture of continuous improvement is that they’re simply too busy. Managers are too busy and staff are too busy. They spend all day trying to get their work done, with no time left to try to improve that work.
I’m reminded of a cartoon I saw a while back. In it, there’s a medieval king overseeing a battle, which of course is being fought on horseback with swords. There’s a guy behind him trying to sell him modern weapons, to which the king replies “Can’t you see I’m in the middle of a battle? I don’t have time for this.” Of course, the humor lies in the fact that the king would immediately win the battle if he took a minute to improve his weaponry.
This is the same issue faced by so many businesses today. If we could only take a step back from our work for a few minutes every day to improve the work we’re doing, we’d win more battles with less effort.
Here are a few strategies for getting the ball rolling on daily continuous improvement:
Start with small things
When you ask people for improvement ideas, they usually jump straight to large-scope, long-term projects. This is the type of work that makes people think they have no time for continuous improvement. After all, you can only work on so many of these projects at once before you really do run out of time - or you don’t even have the time to get started on any of them.
That being said, it’s important to remember the value of small ideas, too. Asking people to identify problems that they can fix simply quickly gets the ideas flowing. You might ask, “How can you save a few minutes in your day?” The value of those little ideas will quickly add up, as staff find that they’re able to improve quality, safety, satisfaction, and the bottom line as part of their daily work.
Promote continuous improvement as a valuable use of time
If your staff think they’re going to get in trouble for stopping their regular work in order to work on improving it, they’re not going to do it. It’s important for leaders to carve out some time for continuous improvement, and encourage their staff to use it.
Sometimes that's easier in office processes, but I'm thinking of one health system where the chief of the transplant department was overseeing nurses and staff who were basically doing office work, evaluating patients to help determine if they were eligible for organ transplants.
The transplant chief told them, "Look, there's so many patients that need our help, we could be working on their cases 24 hours a day. But we all choose not to. We go home, we eat dinner, we go to our families. We could choose to take 20 minutes out of our work to focus on improvement, because that's the only way we’re going to make improvements that would allow us to take care of more patients per day." Thinking of that time as an investment, we'll spend some time now to save a lot of time later. Leaders often have to give express permission for this to happen.
Delegate, delegate, delegate
Sometimes supervisors and managers think they need to implement all of the suggested improvements themselves, as in the old suggestion box model where employees point out problems and the boss fixes them (or ignores them or rejects their ideas). This approach results in the boss becoming a bottleneck.
In a successful culture of continuous improvement, managers accept that they can’t (or shouldn’t!) implement every little idea that their staff come up with. Instead, they empower the staff to act on their own ideas! Successful managers save time by developing their staff as critical thinkers and problem solvers.
When they delegate and assign work, the managers are available for help and coaching, of course, but the brunt of the work doesn’t fall on them. I guarantee that a team of 20 employees can implement more improvements than can a single manager.
If you use these methods in initiating and managing continuous improvement, I think you’ll find that you suddenly have a lot more time than you think - and you can implement many more improvements than you could before.
What tricks do you use to make time for continuous improvement? We'd love to hear about them in the comments.