5 Keys of Continuous Improvement

Norb Slowikowski / June 2015

For most people, change can be a scary prospect. But if we can utilize the change process to get people to feel good about the concept of continuous improvement, then we can get them to take ownership of getting better on the job. Unfortunately, this does not always mean that change will take place. Taking people beyond the “feeling” stage requires some form of self-direction to achieve and see concrete results.
Getting people to adopt a new behavior as a consistent way of working takes time. If managers and staff have a role model who leads by example and reinforces good behavior, then the chances of success are much higher.
Remember that people are “boss watchers.” If the boss says one thing and does another, there is a sense of ambiguity between words and deeds. Managers and supervisors at all levels must lead by example. Live with a new mantra in mind: Do what you say you will do. That’s how you develop a sense of integrity.
Leading by example requires demonstrating the following behaviors on an ongoing basis:

  • Engaging in active listening.
  • Experimenting and taking risks.
  • Providing and encouraging feedback (both positive and negative).
  • Stressing participation in problem-solving and decision-making.
  • Breaking the project down into achievable steps.
  • Recognizing achievements through frequent positive feedback. Let people know their efforts are appreciated.
  • Behaving in ways consistent with company values.
  • Focusing on the big picture.
  • Holding people accountable for their actions.

Continuous improvement initiatives often fail because they do not have the backing of upper management. Simply put, the upper management team has to change the way it manages before the rank and file can follow suit.
Commitment to your people is the foundation that leadership must build on for all effective continuous improvement initiatives to take place. Without it, even the most carefully designed program will never work. The leadership we’re talking about is based on the premise that people are our most valuable resource, and we need to utilize their talent and involve them in order to achieve desired results.
If the upper management team is truly committed to continuous improvement, they should show it by doing the following:

  • Do what you say you will do.
  • Ensure that your behavior and actions mirror leadership promise statements.
  • Include others in the process.
  • Make sure that staff is “sold” rather than “told” to get involved.
  • Ensure that continuous improvement is not the flavor of the month, but a commitment to making things better—always.

Here are the five keys of continuous improvement:
Leadership. Leadership is based on fundamental values of respect, caring and achievement. Leaders reach out and inspire people to fulfill their potential. Together, leaders and their team members envision a better future, feel united behind this common purpose, empower each other to perform, explore opposing ideas to solve problems and create and reflect on their achievements.
Participation/Teamwork. Team effort generates the commitment and capabilities to innovate. Everybody wants to be part of something bigger than themselves, which includes being respected and connected with others and feeling invigorated and accepted by them. Teamwork is the collaborative effort that revitalizes the organization and increases the competence and well-being of people.
Commitment. Leaders need to build an environment where people want to come to work and do their best. This is the commitment necessary to grow the organization. Leaders can create this commitment by giving people a sense of control over the work they do. Keep them in the loop and show them appreciation for a job well done.
Tracking and Measuring. If you want it, track and measure it. If you can’t measure it, forget it. People need assessments to excel and move in the right direction. With this in mind, it is essential to track and measure the effectiveness of the processes and procedures that have been put in place. The people who use them become the experts and catalysts for change and continuous improvement. With their feedback and involvement, we can make the necessary changes to improve both quality and productivity.
Accountability. Team members own the responsibility for delivering great performance. Leaders are responsible for creating the environment where ownership takes place. This takes coaching, developing individual skills and competencies and helping people do what they know they must do. When people deliver great performances, provide positive reinforcement. If there is substandard performance after ongoing coaching, clarify the consequences and let the employee know you will deliver them if performance doesn’t improve.
This sense of accountability is the last and often most important step in leading your team to continuous improvement. When people know the consequences, they can adjust their process to achieve the correct outcome. By learning from both past mistakes and successes, workers can understand what it takes to get better on a daily basis. .

Norb Slowikowski is president of Slowikowski & Associates, Inc., Darien, Ill.