When I was a kid, I used to slip out the back door in the mornings, whisk across the dewy yard, and sit in our tomato patch as the birds woke up across the neighborhood. It wasn’t a big garden - but it was big enough for a little girl to rest and smell the spring. If there’s one scent I associate with my childhood home in Virginia, it’s the tangy scent of blossoming tomato plants.
This year, for the first time in my adult life, I have my own yard. As the winter sky began to lighten and the woods behind my house turned from brown to green seemingly overnight, I couldn’t help but remember that childhood tomato patch. I ordered some heirloom seeds from the internet, dreaming of lemon-colored cucumbers, rainbows of tomatoes, and trailing vines of purple beans.
Now, to be frank, I have to say that my experience with gardening is limited to smelling my mom’s tomatoes. But how hard can growing seeds really be?
Turns out, it’s hard, you guys.
After tons of research, I decided on the plastic baggie method to sprout my little seeds. I laid them out with great precision, carefully spacing them and labeling the bags. I made large envelopes to keep them in the dark on a specially ordered heat mat.
And then I waited.
A few days later, no progress.
A week later, a couple of sprouts!
A few days after that… a white, fuzzy, horrible mold smelling distinctly like death had overcome my would-be garden.
You see, I knew the basics of what a seed needs to grow. Moisture and warmth, and later, sunlight. Pretty basic stuff, right? We learned this in elementary school.
What I didn’t realize was that they also need airflow. I did EVERYTHING else correctly, down to a T, but my seeds were still a total loss. You see, if you’re missing any one of the critical elements to growing plants, nothing will grow.
The same is true for an improvement culture.
It looks simple at first, and a quick Google search will tell you what you need to get started - a way to capture ideas, a way to collaborate, leadership behaviors - there’s so much content out there on this topic, it’s easy to feel like an expert. Then, when you struggle to spread your improvement culture, you’re left with a bag of moldy seeds wondering what went wrong.
Me? I was missing airflow. Your problems are much more difficult to solve, but as with my plants, the first step is figuring out exactly what you need for a sustainable improvement culture.
If I had a nickle for every time I hear someone claim to “be Lean” while making no effort to engage front-line staff in improvement, I’d be able to buy... a whole lot more heirloom seeds. This mindset - that an improvement culture is one dependent only on projects and events - might be common, but it’s also commonly the reason an improvement culture fails to take root.
A true culture of continuous improvement involves every person in the organization in improving their daily work. By placing improvement squarely on the to-do list of every person in the organization, you’re able to harness the collective creative power of your staff. If a Lean team of 5 people can make 10 improvements per year, imagine how much things could change if you engaged a company of 500 people!
The key here is to place a high value on small, incremental improvements that individuals can make to their own work and share with colleagues, giving each improvement the maximum impact without interfering significantly with anyone’s workload.
Check out this eBook to learn more about engaging staff in bottom-up improvement:
Similarly, you can’t have a sustainable improvement culture based only on bottom-up initiatives. Sometimes, a process needs a total overhaul, a problem you thought was small turns out to be a big one after all, or you have a strategic initiative that won’t be reached without significant change. In these instances (and others), it becomes imperative to gather a team to collaborate in a large project or event.
This type of work is important for your improvement culture because while bottom-up improvement is slow and steady, top-down improvement provides quick, intermittent bursts of change the energize the culture, drive high-value results, and achieve organizational goals.
Neither is more or less important than the other. One is the heat, the other is the moisture.
With the first two elements of an improvement culture discussed so far, you have steady, incremental progress coupled with rapid, intermittent change. If you’re not careful, though, you wind up with competing initiatives pulling in more directions than is sustainable.
This is where the third element of your improvement culture comes into the equation.
Strategy deployment is a management methodology in which you identify a handful of organizational goals which the entire organization then strives to achieve - the big picture goals that determine the long-term success of the company. Clearly identifying these AND communicating them across all levels of the organization gives people engaged in both bottom-up and top-down improvement guidance for what improvements to prioritize. In this way, you can get the entire organization working toward achieving a narrow, specific set of goals, rather than aimless initiatives that lack a significant impact.
The area of coaching is another common misstep in an improvement culture, though it’s perhaps a bit trickier to identify than the last three. With bottom-up improvement, top-down initiatives, and strategy deployment, it’s pretty easy to look at them and say “Am I doing this? Yes.”
With coaching, on the other hand, you really have to ask yourself “Am I doing this correctly?”
If you’re involved in leading a Lean transformation, chances are that you provide some form of training to the people engaging in improvement. Often, that training comes in the form of a class or certification. Don’t get me wrong - providing background on improvement philosophy and methodology in this way is critical.
The catch, though, is that you can’t stop coaching once people leave the classroom. Quite the opposite, really - the moment your formal training is over, is when the real work starts. You send a new group of employees back into the workforce, tasked with coming up with a way to improve their work. The more feedback you can give them as they get started, and in real-time, the better their improvement skills will develop.
I’ve not yet mentioned improvement software, because my point in this post isn’t how much you need software to create this culture (though you do). I don’t really know how anyone successfully pulls off this level of coaching without it, though, so I’m going to break form and talk about it here.
Improvement software gives you visibility into the daily improvement work of your staff and managers. You’re able to see who is working on what, where bottlenecks are starting to occur, where activity and engagement rates are low - all of these predictive indicators that help you assess and redirect your improvement culture - indicators that, without software, are hidden beneath the surface.
The last, but certainly not least significant, element of a sustainable improvement culture is visual management. You know the expression “Out of sight, out of mind?” Never is that truer than when you’ve asked a bunch of busy people to add an extra task (improvement) to their days, without any kind of visual cues.
There are a lot of different ways to incorporate visual management into your improvement culture, with varying success. Some companies use bulletin boards in common areas to track the progress of improvements, while others use the same approach with digital boards to keep the data updated in real-time. Stoplight reports are another common tool, as are strategy boards. Whatever visual management methodologies you’re employing, the key is to ensure that they’re accessible to all employees, all the time, in order to maintain forward momentum toward your improvement goals.
I could go on, getting into more granular details about what you need to start, spread, and sustain an improvement culture, but these five elements really are the framework for success. When you find yourself struggling to identify why your improvement culture is struggling, take another look at this list and see where you’re dropping the ball. If you have all five of these components working well and working together, you’ve built a strong foundation for your improvement culture.