Tag Archives: continuous improvement

Pursuing Preemptive Improvement

If I had a dollar for every time I heard or read about the need for organizations to be “more proactive and less reactive,” I could’ve bought an Italian villa by now. Despite the sense of urgency that usually accompanies that time-worn platitude, it is rarely followed by any sensible corrective action.

Part of the problem is how it’s described. Can someone please explain to me the difference between being “active” and being “pro-active” in a way that makes sense? A better word for what people are really griping about and pleading for is “preemptive,” not proactive. Consistently superior businesses tend to be exceptional at anticipating future conditions and taking the necessary action to pursue potential opportunities and prevent potential failures. That’s being preemptive.

Getting Trapped
One reason that organizations aren’t very good at preemptive improvement is because they approach it sporadically, and they trap themselves in projects and initiatives that are time consuming and complex. When that happens, they get gun-shy and stay wrapped up in their comfy day-to-day operations, dealing with whatever changes and adjustments they need to make as they come along. That’s NOT being preemptive.

While some improvement efforts can indeed by be quite daunting, it’s possible to make meaningful progress with a relatively simple, yet highly effective method for getting everyone engaged in continuous preemptive improvement.

Getting Unstuck
First, start with a single focus. Pick an area where you’re having persistent problems or you want to make consistent gains – take safety or quality, for example. Every Friday at 2:00 p.m., schedule a 30-minute meeting with all managers and supervisors, and discuss this question: “Where is the next quality/safety incident likely to happen during the upcoming week?”

To get all employees involved during the preceding week, supervisors and managers ask that same question of the people who report to them. In addition to getting widespread buy-in for the process, you’re getting the benefit of input from the people on the front line who are in the best position to spot potential failures and opportunities for improvement.

After discussion at the meeting, the supervisors and managers pick ONE item from the list of possibilities that everyone will focus on during the following week. A number of benefits come from this approach:

  • The likelihood of that particular failure occurring is greatly reduced.
  • Employees are also thinking throughout the week about the other potential issues they came up with, and they are more conscious and attentive about those items as well as the primary organizational focus for the week.
  • It requires a relatively modest investment of time, it is uncomplicated, and it helps to hardwire safety or quality or whatever the focus happens to be into the culture of day-to-day operations.

So the next time someone pleads for a more “proactive” approach to dealing with problems and opportunities, tell them you’ve got a solution. Better yet, be “preemptive” about it – and go tell someone about it right now before they complain again.

Our ImaginAction System helps organizations think outside the employee suggestion box . Download our free guide to learn more. For more information, send us an e-mail or call us today at 314-664-6497.

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Getting better at getting better.

Most forward-looking business people are avid advocates of the principle espoused by noted author, Jim Collins, that “good is the enemy of great.”  But how many recognize that great is the enemy of better?  Of course, it’s great to be great, but if you get seduced into being content with greatness, you won’t stay there for long.  Markets change … technologies change … companies change … people change … everything changes – and if you’re not getting better, you’re falling behind.  There’s no in between.

Better not get tempted by the “icing.”
Few astute leaders would argue otherwise, but the way they typically operate demonstrates a shallow appreciation for what it takes to get employees fully engaged in getting better all the time as a persistent way of life.

They declare they want employee input and empowerment … they brag about an open door policy … they set up culture clubs and suggestion committees … they create a bunch of recognition programs … they hold quarterly town hall meeting … and on and on and on.  When you add it all up, though, they’re just stacking one program and activity on top of another, and they delude themselves into believing that constitutes a substantive approach to getting employees actively engaged in making things better.

Here’s the quandary.  They’re not entirely off base.  Most of that stuff can help to some extent, creating an illusion that the organization is on the right path. That illusion makes it all the more difficult to heighten awareness and raise expectations for what a true continuous improvement mindset and methodology can produce when it’s imbedded at its systemic best.  In the end all those programs and activities are little more than the proverbial icing on the cake.  Unless organizations get real and focus on the “cake” of day-to-day systems and processes, improvement efforts ultimately wind up anemic, episodic and unsustainable.

Better make it a habit.
Getting past that trap takes a systematic routine that generates a sustainable output of improvements from every corner of the organization on a constant basis – in other words, a “continuous improvement habit.”  That’s mainly due to the dual essence of human nature. The animal part of us wants things to be predictable, stable and unchanging — what all living creatures crave to feel safe and secure. The human part of us wants to exercise our unique gifts of imagination and free will to push the boundaries, explore possibilities and color outside the lines of the natural world.  In order to optimize people’s improvement potential, organizations need to appeal to both aspects of that nature.  In a nutshell, employees need a habit to replace the habit of doing things over and over again the same way.

Then, make the habit better.
But there’s a subtle yet significant catch in that recipe.  Even the continuous improvement habit or process itself needs to be scrutinized constantly so the organization is always “getting better at getting better.” That’s the captivating subtitle of a book by Doug Lemov called Practice Perfect. His premise is simple yet compelling.

“We love competition, the big win, the ticking seconds of the clock as the game comes down to the wire. We watch games and cheer, but if we really wanted to see greatness we’d spend our time watching, obsessing on, and maybe even cheering the practice sessions instead. Practice Perfect … shows that anyone, in any field, can come to appreciate that practice, not games, makes champions.”

Here’s one critical twist on Lemov’s contention.  The notion that “practice makes perfect” is a fallacy.  Truth is, practice makes permanent.  It only makes perfect if you’re practicing the right things.  If you’re practicing to make the perfect buggy whip when the rest of the world is shifting toward automotive transportation, you can practice with perfection every minute of the day and wind up obsolete.  Likewise, if you’re practicing how to make the best automobile in the wrong way, you’ll wind up losing the game.

It all comes down to a clear and compelling conclusion.  Organizations always need to be “getting better at getting better,” or they’ll eventually get caught in the alluring and misleading trap of seeing greatness as the pinnacle of success.

Learn more about our approach to employee engagement in our free webinar, available to view on demand! For more information, send us an e-mail or call us today at 314-664-6497.

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When improvement gets personal.

In a recent team meeting at an organization that’s beginning to implement our ImaginAction Continuous Improvement System, we reaffirmed a basic truism about human nature in the workplace: if you want to get employees seriously engaged in continuous improvement efforts, it helps to make it personal.

We build that principle into the system from the outset when we do orientation and training.   In one exercise, we get very personal by asking employees to lay out the details of their “get-up-in-the-morning-and-get-ready-for-work” process.  People have varied reactions, of course, ranging from chuckles and jokes… to earnest reflection… to shrugs and puzzled looks about why they’re being asked to do something so simple and silly.

We help them take a systematic approach by giving them Post-It Notes to use so they can describe the process step-by-step.  Among other things, the sticky notes help them insert details they miss along the way and rearrange steps to get them in the right order.

Challenging the Routine

By the end of the exercise, most people get pretty serious, and it opens up into a rich conversation about what it takes to improve entrenched daily processes in the workplace.  We talk about core ideas from the exercise, such as:

  • Most of the time we’re on automatic pilot with our daily processes, and we’re clueless about what’s working well, what’s not working and what could work better.
  • The real knowledge expert of any process is the person who’s doing it every day.
  • Most substantive and sustained improvement comes from the cumulative effect of addressing a multitude of small details rather than launching massive wholesale change.

Those are just a few key concepts that get addressed.  Sometimes – as it did with this particular client – a number of people also have a personal epiphany, and they decide that their “get-up-in-the-morning-and-get-ready-for-work” process needs considerable adjustment.

That’s what happened with Martha, one team member who realized that her morning routine was “a mess.”  It was chaotic and stressful, and it needed to get fixed.  She decided to get her daughter to help, starting out by asking her to lay out the process as she saw it.  Like Martha, her daughter first thought it sounded silly and simple.  “Just try it,” she urged.  As they went through the process, she discovered it was more complicated and revealing than she thought.  More importantly, they were able to isolate and remedy some basic problems in the process.  “It’s still not perfect, but it’s so much better,” said Martha.  “The stress level is way down, and it’s improving every day.”

Nice added value, right?  But it gets better.

Martha told the story to her co-worker, Rita, who had a similar problem – her “pick-up-the-grandkids-after-school-and-get-them-to-sports-practice” process.  Rita scoffed initially at the notion of getting her grandkids to help her fix it, but Martha urged her to give it a try.  “I couldn’t believe it,” said Rita.  “When we got the process all laid out, everyone realized how much grandma was doing and what each person could do to help.”  Could they have come to the same conclusion without laying out details of the process on sticky notes?  Probably – but the graphic display of all the steps involved made an impact on the grandkids that just barking orders or pleading with them was unlikely to accomplish.

Not surprisingly, Martha and Rita have gotten immersed in the ImaginAction Continuous Improvement System, and they’re already implementing improvements on the job that are making a meaningful difference to them and the team.   And it’s not just because they’re being asked to help improve the workplace, but because they’re focusing on things that matter to them in their own areas of responsibility.  Or to put it more simply – it’s gotten personal.

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