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Start a Culture of Improvement in 4 Easy Steps

Posted by James Dulong

Nov 10, 2016 10:38:00 AM

Image of man walking up stairs. Start a culture of improvement in four easy steps.Everybody seems to understand the basic theory behind continuous improvement as it relates to free market enterprises. Essentially, you have to get better because you have competitors and they are not standing still. Falling behind the competition can mean reduced margins, smaller market share, or outright business failure. If we can all agree that it’s important, why are so many of us struggling to maintain a culture that supports continuous improvement?

I’m sure those reasons are different for every organization but here are a few common themes that we see:

  • Limited Resources – Adding people costs money. If you are reading this, you probably are capable of directing some improvement projects but you already have a full time job. So does everybody else that you work with.
  • Limited Skills – While you may have the ability to direct an improvement project, many of the people you work with may not. They are comfortable coming in, doing their jobs, and complaining a little bit about the status quo.
  • Firefighting – Most managers spend a significant amount of time firefighting; addressing the current crisis at hand. Moving from one issue to the next leaves little or no time for true problem solving and improvement.

Having worked so long in implementing improvement projects for other companies, we have identified four easy steps that you can take to make a shift toward a culture of improvement.

1. Engage a Salesperson

I know this is counterintuitive and sounds like it couldn’t be any less productive but follow
our thought process. Having recently attended INFO*FLEX, sponsored by the Flexographic
Technical Association, I can tell you that there were approximately 300 exhibitors all armed
with salespeople that would have loved to talk to you about how they could improve your
process. Are all of them liars and crooks? Of course they are. I’m just kidding but unfortunately that is what comes to the minds of many of you as you read this.

Believe it or not, the problem is you. We are trained not to trust salespeople and they know
it. This creates strained dialogue right from the beginning. You need to take control of the
discussion. Do a little bit of homework and set the agenda. You are both business people.
Essentially, you want to know if their offering will do X. Either it will or it won’t. No amount of salesmanship will change that. A good salesperson will be relieved by the honesty because frankly he should be able to tell you whether or not his product will do X. If it can’t, he can move on to something more productive and if it can, you both benefit. Additionally, your salesperson can handle much of the work required to implement the improvement, saving you time.

2. Delegate and Elevate

I need to give credit to Gino Wickman the author of Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business.
This is where we discovered the concept of Delegate and Elevate. The exercise is simple.
Take some time to write down your primary job responsibilities and then place those
responsibilities in one of the four quadrants of the following matrix: Once complete, work to delegate those things you don’t like to do. I know this is difficult given the limited skills and limited resources we identified earlier but what we’ve found is that people are capable of stepping up and are actually more productive, (not at first but after some training and experience), when they have taken on new responsibilities. You can simultaneously free up some of your time and recognize higher performers by giving them additional responsibility.

3. Start Small

The concept of continuous improvement is based on making several small improvements
that ultimately add up to great gains in productivity as opposed to one big dynamic move
that has a tremendous impact. One way for a continuous improvement culture to lose
support is to have a failure early. Failing is perfectly acceptable after a culture of improvement is embedded. In fact, failure should be expected if you are aggressively
pursuing excellence. Not everything you try will work. But to start, it makes sense to go after an easy victory. Winning is contagious. If implementing a new technology, select something that is proven, widely used and supported by a reputable company.

4. Measure, Measure, Measure

Measuring does two things. First, it is evidence that you are making progress. How are you
going to know if you are actually getting better unless you can compare past performance to current performance? Second, it provides reinforcement to your team that they are making meaningful progress. Like I said earlier, winning is contagious. If you are measuring and find that your improvement project has either had no impact or caused performance to decline, react quickly. If it can be fixed, fix it. If it can’t, admit it, learn from it, and move on. Your team will respect you for not hanging on to a failed technology. As we say frequently when trying new things, “fail early; fail cheap.”

Creating a culture of improvement is not the easiest thing to do. If it were, we would all have one. It can however, be the fuel to promote growth in your company. As we said at the beginning, “Falling behind the competition can mean reduced margins, smaller market share, or outright business failure.” The flipside of that is increased margins, greater market share and outright business success. Taking these four easy steps can get your team on the path to establishing an improvement culture.

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