“The elevator to success is out of order. You'll have to use the stairs...
one step at a time.”
Joe Girard, named ‘The World’s Greatest Salesperson’
by the Guinness Book of World Records
At KaiNexus, we are often asked, “When is our organization ready to start with a continuous improvement methodology?” The short answer is, “now”- this desire to engage your employees and colleagues in continuous improvement is the critical first step.
We hear from many leaders who are hesitant to start on a continuous improvement journey because they believe that their “culture is not ready for that yet.” But, the only way to get started on continuous improvement is to… get started. Continuous improvement isn’t complicated or risky when you have leadership commitment and a solid methodology, such as KaiNexus. That commitment starts with you, regardless of your level of knowledge about continuous improvement. You don’t have to be an expert in continuous improvement to get started – you have to be willing to work toward gaining this mastery by getting started and gaining experience.
If you’re interested in a running a marathon, your legs and body won’t be ready to do so immediately. If you never start running, even just one mile, you’ll never be able to run a marathon. The same idea goes with continuous improvement. Resistance to start changing could come from a mid-level manager who is concerned that her senior leaders are not committed to engaging everybody in improvement. From our experience, however, the only way to convince senior leaders of the power of front-line driven continuous improvement is to demonstrate it in a department or one part of the organization. Our advice is to start with the improvement program in the area you are responsible for. Demonstrate how staff engagement increases, and how that leads to better safety, higher quality, and lower cost. Demonstrating action and results will get your senior leaders more engaged than will endless study and waiting for the culture to be perfectly ready.
Never let a perceived lack of leadership be an excuse to not do what you can.
- John Shook, CEO of the Lean Enterprise Institute
Hesitance to start working on continuous improvement could also come from senior leaders who think their lower-level managers and staff aren’t ready for such a program, or are hesitant to start an improvement program unless they are certain it will go perfectly. Our advice is to apply the Plan-Do-Study-Adjust cycle to your improvement program. Get started with a reasonable amount of planning and training. Start in a pilot area where the local manager and director believe in their ability and their employees’ ability to participate effectively in improvement. Get started (“Do”), Study what is and is not working, and Adjust accordingly.
Getting started is a great first step, but sustaining a continuous improvement program requires the commitment of leadership. Leaders need to be vocal about their desire to involve everybody in improvement and their belief that everybody has great ideas about improving their work. Leaders need to make sure that improvements are not sub-optimizing, and that they are aligned with the organization’s mission, vision, strategy, and values. Leaders need to ensure that employees have time to work on improvement, and that these efforts are recognized and rewarded.
In our experience, managers and front-line staff need minimal education about just a few key points that are critical for creating a culture of continuous improvement. While initial staff training on these topics takes only 15 minutes, it must be supported over time by the behaviors of leaders at all levels. Additional resources can be shared, such as KaiNexus’ training and educational videos.
Our recorded videos and on-site workshops teach proven improvement methods that help prevent the failures of traditional suggestion boxes. These traditional failures include suggestions that staff want managers to implement (“get us a new information system”) that are time consuming, costly, or otherwise impractical, as well as ideas that involve spending money in ways that would not impact customers (“put in a new gym”). With the proper leadership guidance, we have found that staff members are happy to help improve their workplace using KaiNexus by bringing forward valuable, practical, and implementable ideas.
It’s important to emphasize that a culture of continuous improvement focuses less on “here’s what I need from you,” and more on “here’s what we can do together.” By avoiding a top-down improvement methodology, you demonstrate that your organization values the input of your staff, and views them as a valuable resource in improving your organization. While there are times when staff will identify problems that must be addressed by other departments or by senior leaders, there’s still so much they can do to identify opportunities for improvement that will make their work less frustrating or more efficient, or will make things a little bit better for a customer.
One common hang up with staff involvement in continuous improvement is that people are often afraid that their ideas will fail. The best way to alleviate this hesitation is to get started right away with small, low-risk ideas and improvements. Leaders set a positive tone by emphasizing that improvement attempts won’t always work out as expected, and that that’s ok. Organizations that successfully create a culture of continuous improvement make sure they don’t punish or stigmatize such so-called “failures.”
People underestimate their capacity for change. There is never a right time to do a difficult thing. A leader’s job is to help people have vision for their potential.
- John Arthur Porter, Canadian sociologist