Leaders play a critical role in establishing and supporting cultures of continuous improvement in their organizations. They set the tone for improvement and innovation in the organization, and their behaviors have a direct impact on employee engagement. Practice good leadership behaviors and you'll see a rise in engagement and great improvement as a result of their work. Develop any of these bad habits, and you'll quickly see that you piss off your employees and kill continuous improvement for your organization.
Punish people for bringing up problems
Imagine that one of your employees comes to you today and says, “Yesterday I was working on this, and something terrible happened.” Maybe they broke a piece of equipment, gave the wrong medication, or emailed confidential customer information to the wrong person.
What do you do?
Do you get mad at the employee and punish them for the mistake? Or do you ask what can be done to prevent the error from happening again? The decision you make here says a lot about what kind of boss you are - and what kind of culture you’re creating in your organization. If you blame people for mistakes, chances are they’re going to sweep them under the rug and hope you don’t notice. It’s a natural instinct, for sure, but that’s no way to make a business better. Hiding errors ensures that they’re going to happen again.
The right thing to do here is take a step back and look at what process error allowed the problem to occur, rather than looking for someone to blame for the mistake. Did the equipment break because the right tool wasn’t immediately available and a workaround was implemented? Was the wrong medication administered because the labels are too similar? Is there no confirmation step when emailing sensitive information? Whatever the mistake was, you can bet that there’s a problem with the process that allowed it to happen - and if that process problem is fixed, employees are less likely to make the same mistake again.
Only let them improve areas that impact financials
I know it’s tempting to ask your employees to only look for improvements that have a direct financial impact. You’re under pressure from your boss, your board, and your budget to cut costs and increase revenue. You know that your employees are a great resource for ideas to solve your financial woes… so naturally you want to direct their efforts toward financial improvements.
That’s a surefire way to irritate your employees and diminish their engagement in continuous improvement. Your employees want your business to be successful - but to them, success isn’t just measured in cost and revenue. When your front line employees are working directly with your customers, or producing something that impacts your customers, the customer is naturally going to be their primary focus. They’ll want to improve customer satisfaction first and foremost. Employees are also eager to improve their own lives; they want to like their jobs better, make their jobs better, and reduce irritants in their daily work. These are the things that matter most concretely to your employees. Asking them to ignore their own interests to focus on the metrics that matter most to you implies that you care more about financials than you do about customers and employees. Trust me… that’s not a message you want your employees receiving.
The good news, though, is that by asking for lots of ideas about every area of your business, you’re going to get more ideas - and many of those will have a financial impact, whether the employee intended it or not. 1.4% of our customers’ improvement ideas have a financial impact of over $100,000 - and our customers certainly aren’t just asking for cost reducing and revenue generating ideas. For example, we have a customer who suggested that an endocrinology clinic start educating patients about their in-house speciality pharmacy. Why? Because the patients previously went elsewhere to fill the prescriptions, requiring an extra trip. Making a slight process change to help remind or informing them about the in-house pharmacy could save the patients time, improve clinical quality, and increase their satisfaction. This ended up having a HUGE impact on the organization's revenue generation. If leadership had only asked for financial ideas, this person with a great patient satisfaction improvement may never have spoken up.
Send all of their ideas to a committee for approval
This is a really common mistake that leaders make. They pat themselves on the back for asking for improvement ideas from their employees, and then neglect to think about the fact that those committees only accept a small percentage of ideas to implement (often with a lengthy delay). This is a terrible way to manage continuous improvement, and an easy way to disengage your continuous improvement team.
What’s a better way?
Give leaders the visibility they need to keep an eye on all of the improvement work their employees are doing, but empower employees to make small, low-cost, low-risk improvements themselves. If you have thirty pending improvement ideas that will cost your organization nothing to implement, why do you need to pick three of them as “winners” and scrap the rest? Give your employees the thumbs up to make daily improvements on their own, and save the committee decisions for the really big ideas. Your employees will be a lot happier with the turnaround time on getting their ideas implemented, and see real results from their efforts to make your company - and their jobs - better. Score for employee satisfaction!
Take credit for their improvement ideas
If you really want to make your employees mad, do this:
Step One: Ask them for improvement ideas.
Step Two: Implement those ideas
Step Three: Wait to see if there are good results, and if there are…
Step Four: Don’t tell anyone where the ideas came from. Or worse, say they were your ideas.
Have you ever had a boss who does that? it’s infuriating, right? Your employees work hard to come up with ideas to improve the organization, and they should get recognized for their efforts. That recognition doesn’t need to be (and arguably shouldn’t be) big and fancy, but you do need to do something to recognize them for their work. Continuous improvement software makes it easy for leaders to see who is actively engaged and what their impact is, but you can track it manually if you have to. The important part is that you take that information and use it to publicly give employees credit for their ideas.
This isn’t just fluff to stroke the egos of your employees, either; recognizing employee contributions and broadcasting their impact has the business benefits of:
- Engaging more employees in continuous improvement
- Encouraging the people who are already participating to participate more
- Sharing best practices throughout the organization for maximum impact
Micromanage their improvements
One of the hard parts of being the boss is knowing when to step in, and when to step back. When you see someone working on implementing an improvement idea, it can be tempting to jump in and tell them what to do. Go ahead and do that - if you want to anger your continuous improvement team and diminish their future engagement.
When you see someone working on an improvement and think you could do it better, stop and think. Is it that you could do it BETTER, or that you’d do it DIFFERENTLY? If you honestly have a better idea, provide constructive feedback and ask helpful questions to help the team arrive at a better resolution. If, with some self-reflection, you find that you would only do things differently, but that their way will get the same (or better) results, back up! Nobody like a boss who nitpicks their every move. If you loosen the reins, you’ll see creativity flourish and your employees will develop better problem-solving skills as they learn through doing.