The daily pursuit of continuous improvement is the key to unlocking your potential for growth, as it allows you to achieve progress and advancement in various aspects of life. The idea that involvement of front-line employees is an essential ingredient of any operational excellence effort is no longer as new or as radical as it once was. Much has been written in recent times around Toyota’s “Respect for People” principle and how this is at the core of their success. Yet, despite more attention being devoted to this area by an increasing number of organisations, survey after survey [e.g. Gallup ‘State of the Global Workplace’ 2017] shows employee engagement remains at a worryingly low level. Equally, business leaders get frustrated that this effort does not translate into increased performance, still experiencing poor pace, lack of measurable progress and repeated delays and problems. Productivity remains low or even falls as more people start to “check out” mentally and do just enough to avoid any negative consequences. Employee turnover increases. And all of this progressively translates to the bottom line. Put these two together and the results are inevitable. Managers, perhaps aided by a small number of committed continuous improvement professionals, are overworked struggling to deliver the necessary performance and drive problem solving and improvement activity. They wonder why people show little initiative, resist change, fail to share critical information and seem unwilling to engage in improvement activities. They may even begin to question the “rightness” of devoting more attention to employee involvement. It would be easy to think that I’m describing here organisations where senior leaders and managers haven’t yet woken up to the idea of engaging all employees more effectively. This is far from the truth as I come across many leaders who genuinely want to create a different type of organisation, yet struggle to make it a reality. Something is clearly missing! Let’s dig into the evolution of engaging employees in problem solving and improvement to see what that might be.
A vision for high performance
One of the major “wakeup” moments in my operational excellence journey came in the very early days of Rover Group’s Total Quality Management programme. It was the simple statement – “everyone is responsible for quality”. The idea that quality is built in, rather than inspected out, seemed radical at the time, especially as this involved front line workers taking responsibility for the quality of the work they produced. This was closely followed by the idea that everyone had two parts to their job – doing their job day-to-day and improving their job. Again, radical at the time and yet, over the years, the idea has matured. Organisational leaders have increasingly latched onto this concept, that true market leading performance depends on accessing the collective wisdom and abilities of everyone in the organisation, as evidenced by the sustained success of companies like Toyota. They are attracted to the idea of having employees who are engaged, motivated and confident, who accept responsibility for their own performance and proactively work to resolve problems and act on improvement ideas. From this starting point, organisational transformation programmes have been created. Call them business process improvement, lean, continuous improvement, operational excellence or whatever, all have at their core the idea of getting more of the organisation involved and committed. People have been trained in problem solving and improvement methods, visual management and daily stand-up meetings have been introduced, and so on. In a smaller number – recognising the need to pay attention to people as well as putting in the right processes, systems and tools – leaders have been trained in managing change, giving recognition and coaching. In many cases, results are encouraging. People get excited and pitch in enthusiastically. There are great results from many of the activities and performance does improve – at least for a while. And yet, in too many cases, it is only achieved through significant management effort rather than through the willing and proactive participation of everyone. Which, of course, leads to those managers remaining overworked and increasingly stressed. Hardly the redistribution of effort that might have been envisaged! To begin to understand why, we have to dig a bit deeper.
Getting to the heart of the problem
Taking a structured problem–solving approach, it can be argued that all of the above can be considered as treating symptoms without getting to the root cause. I am drawn back to a famous quote from the leader of another successful, well–known Japanese company, Matsushita (Panasonic), show in the adjacent panel.
Looking back at this nearly 35 years after I first encountered it, I realise that Matsushita is hinting at something far deeper than leadership practices. He is fundamentally challenging leaders and managers to consider their beliefs and thinking about the place and potential of others working in the organisation.
As one example, after all these years, I still dislike the term “human resources”. After all, resources are something we consume, rather than unique and intrinsically valuable human beings. Similarly, the much-used phrase “people are our greatest asset”, while hinting at a belief in the value of people, still seems to consider people much like a piece of equipment, to be cared for or abused dependent on the company attitude. Even if the organisation cares for and nurtures everyone, have the leaders really given up their “Owner” mindset. Perhaps we haven’t moved on from the idea of masters and slaves as much as we would like to think! I find myself thinking that the challenge posed by Matsushita goes to a much deeper level. Are leaders actually prepared to give up control to the extent required for the others in the organisation to truly flourish? Some of the comments during and subsequent to the coronavirus pandemic suggest this may be the case. Managers continue to question whether employees will work effectively when they’re not in the office. Does this suggest a lack of trust, or that the employees are somehow not as committed as they are? Which brings me to my final challenge and question. Who or what has made it that way? Does this mean seniors leaders might have to face up to the uncomfortable truth that – despite their best intentions – all of the symptoms described above are a reflection of the working climate that they themselves have created as a result of their beliefs about their employees? In other words, the way people are talked about and to, treated and managed has a far greater impact than any involvement process that has been put in place. Put simply, unless the underlying mindset of leaders is transformed, we are unlikely to fully engage the rest of the organisation in a way that generates the results that we want, and Toyota’s model of “respect for people” will continue to be an unreachable goal. The significant distinctive of Toyota and other similar organisations seems to be the genuine care for all of the people in the organisation, characterised by chairman Fujio Cho’s famous statement “First we make people, who then make cars.” Their belief is that genuinely working to make everyone’s lives easier and more fulfilling as an explicit aim will generate the results that they want, rather than taking actions in the people arena in order to generate the results. A subtle distinction, I know, but the latter is still about the results rather than the people! Appreciating this distinction perhaps highlights why getting to this way of working is so challenging and uncomfortable for those of us brought up in a very different culture. Yet the rewards, in terms of truly tapping into the collective wisdom and ability of the whole organisation surely makes it worth it!
It all begins with leadership!
The daily pursuit of continuous improvement is the key to unlocking your potential for growth. Even though we’re talking in this article about creating a workplace where everyone is contributing to delivering high performance and making improvements, there is a strong link back to our previous article (“It all begins with leadership” – https://www.veracityoxford.com/articles/it-all-begins-with-leadership ). There we talked about the necessary leadership behaviours and actions necessary to create the right sort of workplace. So far in this article we have dug further into this idea to identify the need for a genuine desire for others to flourish in order to bring this about. Through that, genuine care for people is demonstrated and the values and desires of the organisation start to be aligned with those of the individuals within it. Let’s now dig deeper into what that leadership mindset and behaviour needs to bring about.
Everyday, everybody, everywhere
“Kaizen is everyday improvement, everybody improvement, everywhere improvement. ~ Masaaki Imai
At the core, we are aiming to create a workplace where exceptional levels of performance are an everyday occurrence for everyone in the organisation everywhere, no matter what their department or role. More than that, one where everyone is operating in the “performance zone” rather than managers being overloaded or worse and employees under stretched or even bored. There are a number of areas that need to be addressed, both relating to People and to Process.
Care for People
In his book ‘Drive’, author Dan Pink identifies three key elements of motivation that I have always found helpful to consider.
- Autonomy: working independently
- Mastery: the desire to become really good at something
- Purpose: the sense that what they are doing matters
Setting up the environment for everyone to be allowed to operate independently –as self–managed teams and/or individually – without unnecessary supervision is, to go back to our point about mindset, a matter of trust that they are willing to do so. This is partly a matter of belief, yet also of setting up the right conditions for effective delegation so that managers have confidence in their team’s ability. Setting expectations: be clear that everyone knows what is expected of them:
- What to do
- How success will be measured
- What boundaries or conditions must be respected (standards, procedures etc)
Equipping them with the right level knowledge and skill, which leads on to . . .
To become proficient at something requires more than training. It also requires opportunity to practice, encouragement, good feedback and coaching.
In high–performing organisations, people development is a priority for allocation of time and resources. Regularly investing in every individual’s growth not only improves their performance but also demonstrates that the organisation values their contributions and recognises their potential.
This is perhaps the most important aspect. Respected authors such as Stephen Covey and Simon Sinek argue passionately about the significance of everyone having a “why” for doing anything in their lives. In the first instance, this may be to answer the question “why does this matter?” – to the customer, to the organisation and to the individual – regarding the individual’s tasks and boundaries. Understanding these is not only motivational in itself, but also increases the individual’s commitment and willingness to respect necessary boundaries and conditions. Of course, many individuals’ primary “why” may be outside the organisation, e.g. family or sports. However, knowing and appreciating these will help understanding of that person’s values and beliefs, which in turn will allow leaders to invest in that person’s flourishing to the benefit of all. The overall aim is to align the purposes and values of the organisation with those of the individuals such that they are willingly committing their discretionary effort in ways that add value to them and the organisation.
Recognition and Reward
A question I frequently ask client teams is “how do you know you’re doing a good job?” The answer I get, more often than not, is “we don’t, but we sure know when we aren’t!” It seems that our “default programming” is biased towards spotting the negatives – hardly surprising given that evolution means our subconscious mind is always scanning for “threats”. Making time to notice and acknowledge good contributions is hard work, yet so important. Most people really value appreciation, so celebrating successes and acknowledging individual and team effort motivates employees to maintain their high performance. Note that it is important to do this in ways that are appropriate to the individuals concerned – what’s meaningful and appreciated by some may actually switch others off.
Enabling colleagues to work collaboratively and in teams has two benefits. Firstly, it builds relationships and community within the organisation, fostering the sense of care and belonging through the creation of a supportive environment. Secondly, it improves performance through uniting behind common goals, sharing knowledge and using the diverse knowledge and skills of the team to work on problems and opportunities collectively.
Wherever I go, the one theme that is almost always raised as an area for improvement is communication, whether up or down the organisation. For me, what’s most important is establishing a two-way dialogue so that leaders and managers know what information is really wanted by others and vice versa. Otherwise, what flows in either direction is either an ever–increasing stream of information that doesn’t always hit the mark or the complete opposite – no information coming at all because there’s no sense it is appreciated.
Focus on Task (Process)
In terms of task or process, there are two important aspects to consider in addition to whatever is put in place to ensure that all of the above are addressed.
Daily Management for Performance
Setting up the right practices and procedures to enable everyone do deliver the work that is required is key. Elements to consider are:
- Design of the workplace to make work easier
- Creating plans that are agreed to be achievable
- Making information visible, usually through team information boards or similar
- Regular daily ‘huddles’ – 15-20 minute stand–up meetings to check-in with everyone, review performance, confirm everything is in place for a successful day or, if not, identify issues and actions
Mechanisms to capture problems and improvement ideas
Continuous improvement requires that problems and opportunities for improvement are identified and acted upon as a matter of routine. This requires appropriate mechanisms to capture issues as they are identified (perhaps simply logging on the information board) and then organising to take action. As far as possible, team members should be encouraged and enabled to take action for themselves, with experienced support available if required. Of course, some issues will require action by others, so mechanisms to prioritise, assign action and monitor progress are also necessary. All of these process aspects will be the subject of future articles, so do watch out for them.
You can still sabotage yourself!
This article has explored the major mindset shift required to truly engage everyone in the organisation in its sustainable success, plus the necessary building blocks to create the climate to put that intention into practice. But that’s not the end of the story. Even the best intentioned leaders can still act in ways that are harmful to the effort, so there is a need for vigilance. In her book “Multipliers”, author Liz Wiseman identifies six types of leadership behaviours she calls “accidental diminishers”. These can seem positive yet may have the unintentional, and usually subconscious, effect of shutting down the contribution of others.
The Optimist: The leader who believes that anything is possible with a little focus and effort. This can leave little room for failure or lack pf pace. The leader can been seen as lacking empathy and not valuing the effort of others.
The Rapid Responder: The leader who values pace and is always the first to answer emails, make decisions and so on. This person can move faster than the rest of the organisation can keep up, or limit others’ opportunity to step up and take action.
The Pace Setter: The leader who is achievement oriented and leads from the front. Like the rapid responder, this leader can often leave others lagging behind and demotivated.
The Rescuer: The leader who just wants to help their team members succeed and doesn’t want to see others struggle or fail. So they just jump straight into help, whereas they may be limit that person’s opportunity to grow and create dependence.
The Idea Type: The visionary leader with all of the ideas. These may overwhelm others who are unable to respond and have no sense of priority, let alone the space to contribute their own ideas.
Always On: The charismatic, high energy, ultra–enthusiastic leader. These types can often take up all of the “space” and leave little space for others to contribute.
I know I can identify many of these traits in myself and wonder which ones you might need to be wary of. Of course, used wisely they can be a strength, yet overdone they can stifle the very culture you are trying to create.
I hope that this article has shed further light on what is critical for leaders looking to establish a sustainable high performance culture in their operations.
Even more, what aspects has it highlighted that you or your fellow leaders might need to take action on? Want to go deeper? Future articles will cover many of these topics in more detail. In addition, we are preparing a series of related workbooks to be released progressively over the coming months. Watch out for them or, if you’d like to be notified when they’re available, drop me an email or complete the contact form on our website. Can’t wait? If you need information or help more immediately, I’d be delighted to jump on a no cost, no obligation call. Again, drop me an email or complete the contact form on our website. I look forward to journeying with you. Next time we’ll be looking at creating a customer–focussed mindset across the whole organisation – watch out for it!
Harvey Leach is passionate about helping organizations acquire the knowledge, skill, and culture they need to achieve Operational Excellence. Following a successful career in the automotive industry with Rover and BMW Group, where he worked in a variety of roles covering R&D, production and corporate strategy, Harvey has worked as a consultant, trainer, and coach since 2004. He delights in seeing teams “come alive” as they discover how they can apply the same principles that underpin some of the world’s leading companies to their organization to achieve impressive improvements in performance and more fulfilling lives.