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Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity in a Continuous Improvement Culture

Posted by Megan Cox

Aug 1, 2022 9:00:00 AM

There are few issues facing workplaces today that are as vital, prominent, and overwhelming as how to build a diverse and inclusive workplace. Advice for this area is easy to find, but often difficult to implement and harder to maintain. There can be an overemphasis on recruiting more diverse team members, but less discussion around improving the existing culture.

This is why I was thrilled when KaiNexus recently sat down for our Book Club on Belonging: The Key to Transforming and Maintaining Diversity, Inclusion and Equality at Work by Kathryn Jacobs, Sue Unerman, and Mark Edwards, which promised to provide actionable advice on building a culture of belonging that was applicable to any position. In previous workplaces, I felt that this issue was often viewed as an "HR thing," or simply "someone else's issue," so the opportunity to examine what we could all do to drive diversity and inclusion excited me. 

Belonging is a book that believes in the capacity of any organization to change for the better; a book that firmly maintains that growth is a fluid process, and that communication, empathy, and reinforcement of good practices are the path forward for any workplace in any industry. Belonging argues that scoping out the problems in your workplace, listening to new perspectives, and taking actionable steps not simply to fix but improve diversity and inclusion is much more effective than kicking the problem to a recruiter to resolve.

A single thought kept flashing through my mind throughout the course of reading: hey, that sounds pretty familiar.

Belonging's overlap with the principles of Lean and CI does not feel entirely coincidental. Its focus on diversity of thought and ensuring everyone has a voice stems from the same trigger point that often starts CI journeys–What am I not seeing by only looking at things from my perspective?

Regardless of where you are on your CI journey–or your journey towards creating a workplace where everyone belongs–the principles and methods below can guide you forward and offer a place to begin.

Diversity of Thought is Good for Business

A key element of CI is that the more perspectives you have, the stronger the innovations you make will be. Someone who has worked their way up the ladder from the factory floor will think differently than a business major who joined the executive team. Both have valuable knowledge and perspective, and both can provide insight that the other does not have.

It follows, then, that gender, racial, economic, physical ability, and neurological diversity offer similar benefits. Belonging points out that it was reported in 2019 that "companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 36% more likely to have financial returns above their industry medians, and those in the top quartile for gender diversity are 25% more likely to have such returns."

In the words of the book, "Those businesses who have managed diversity and inclusion successfully, who have different points of view represented on their top boards, are the businesses that have grown, even in tough times. With more diversity at the top, decision-making is better, stronger, and more effective, and everyone’s career benefits from this."

Everyone Should have a Role 

Gathering ideas from all levels of your workplace is crucial to creating an improvement culture. The engine that drives improvement hinges on the belief that any employee–a frontline worker, a middle manager, an executive–should be empowered to speak up about what they see and have their thoughts meaningfully engaged with. This allows for every level to have a role in bettering the work that you do.

So it is with diversity and inclusion. Belonging emphasizes that everyone has a role to play in building an inclusive culture–be that by building their emotional intelligence, challenging status quo norms, or simply finding ways to include even those who are not easy to include. 

This empowerment must be supported by leadership, but, as put in the book, "the job of building a culture of belonging in the workplace is down to everyone, from top to bottom. The board must set the vision of inclusion, but it’s up to everyone to make sure that it is lived every day. Just as old-fashioned traditional culture is kept alive by thousands of tiny acts of exclusion and alienation of those who are different from the supposed norm, then a new positive culture of belonging will be created from everyday actions and positive affirmations of inclusivity." 

Change Behaviors

Part of improvement culture is the belief that it is often more powerful to change the behaviors surrounding a process than the process itself. Change is frequent in organizations that practice CI, so it's vital that the approaches that are taken are aligned. Building behaviors and habits often requires repetition and reward, and motivation to maintain. 

Belonging approaches behavior change in a number of ways, but perhaps most powerfully through Micro-affirmations. While you may be familiar with the term "micro-aggression", small behaviors and speech that diminishes another, micro-affirmation is a much less frequently used term that refers to small acts of inclusion and gratitude that build a sense of belonging. These can range from asking others about their opinions in a meeting, listening gratefully when others discuss their experience or recognizing the achievements of others. 

These micro-affirmations disrupt micro-aggressions by building new habits and behavior, rather than simply punishing what is often an unconscious act. Paired with providing the empowerment to all employees to call out or address micro-aggressions, this can be a powerful tool to change attitudes and create inclusivity.

Regularly Reviewing the Outcome

Likely familiar to anyone on their CI journey is the tenet that "outcomes are what matters." Instead of focusing on maintaining a process, it's more practical and prudent to honestly assess the results of a process.

When launching inclusionary changes, be they recruitment policies, diversity committees, or initiatives to foster diversity in leadership, [Belonging] proposes they are treated in the same way, with a beginning, middle, and end phase–recognizing the issue and developing the solution, gathering as much feedback as possible from a wide range of employees, and then reviewing the outcome. 

The end phase is often skipped in organizations but is arguably the most important phase, the place where you can address issues that have arisen and reemphasize the importance and value of what you are addressing. Belonging has the following advice to offer:

"Any new policy must be stuck to consistently, and shown in action at the most senior levels of the business, in the most public way possible. You must be ruthlessly honest about the outcomes, not deluded by your desired image."

There are many valuable lessons within the pages of Belonging. The topic of diversity and inclusion can sometimes feel too complex and complicated to be solved, but the methods offered by CI can be applied to make lighter work of transforming work to a place where everyone feels uplifted, included, and equal despite their differences. 

How can we do this? With many hands, clear goals, and a hunger for change and improvement.

In Kathryn, Sue, and Mark's words,

"We must all daily attempt to wake up to the beauty of difference. We must attempt to have the humbleness to acknowledge that it is possible that we have been wrong; the energy to debate a point of view on the basis of equality of opinion, no matter what the hierarchical status of the people arguing; the capacity to acknowledge different points of view, from people from very different backgrounds and cultural experiences. These are the attributes of champions of belonging in the workplace."

Topics: Improvement Culture, Spread Continuous Improvement

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