Inside Out E-Column: Aligning Employee Engagement with Marketing Communications

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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