Today more than ever in history employees are being required to be innovative, to look at processes, procedures and structures. They are required to ask how they can do things more efficiently and effectively.
To be more efficient and more effective is about making changes, and within the capacity of a leader should be the ability to lead organisational change. Leaders should strive to constantly assess the tools and processes available to make change, and develop best practices that result in excellence for individuals, divisions and the organisation
When Usain Bolt broke the 100m sprint world record in 2008 at the Beijing Olympics with a time of 9.69 seconds do you think he went back to the track and vowed to train in exactly the same way for his next race? Bolt would’ve trained even harder, found smarter ways of working, new speed drills, different weights exercises. He and his coach would have analysed his training for Beijing, took heed of the things that worked well and tried to better them.
A year later, at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin, Bolt knocked a tenth of a second off the time he posted in Beijing and broke the world record a second time.
Just like finely tuned athletes, organisations should have finely tuned processes and systems, and assessing whether those processes and systems are operating at their most effective should be a constant practice.
This is continuous improvement. Crucially, it involves putting the people who do the work in control of the way they get the work done. Managers and directors should set goals, but leave the people doing them to find the best way of doing the work to a high standard. That way the way things are done is always shifting, always improving — it is organic and responsive. It also involves employees constantly knowing what their benchmark is, what the acceptable standard is of performance. The only way Usain Bolt could work to better his performance in Beijing was to benchmark his 9.69 best, and compare his training for that with what he would need to do to improve.
Peterson and Reid define it very succinctly:
“Continuous improvement is characterised by having all employees involved, producing daily improvement, focusing on product characteristics and by being evolutionary rather than revolutionary”- Peterson and Reid–Continuous Improvement, Method and Madness
You might think that this just sounds a lot like putting things right. If there are things that need to be improved surely this means they aren’t right in the first place?
Not strictly true. Continuous improvement happens when a company has reached an acceptable level of working — a minimum expectation. Corrective action, however, originates when an organisation is in the position of having unacceptable parts to it — bits that are wrong, or working incorrectly. Where there are processes that have reached an acceptable level of performance and have achieved stability, it is then that organisations must ask themselves “How do we make this better?”
The drive to be better — to make better products and deliver better services — should be in the forefront of every organisation’s strategy. Otherwise what’s to stop your customer going and buying a competitor’s product or service in our world of seamless connectedness, one-day delivery and instant results?
The world has shrunk. In 500BC the King of Persia, Darius I, built a road network to span the entire breadth of the Persian Empire to enable people and information to travel quickly. Even so, to get a message to someone on the other side of the Empire, some 2000 miles, it would take 10 days. Compare that to the time it takes to send information today — we can communicate, share documents, materials, information across the whole world almost instantaneously. People now know that if they go online in a few minutes they can find the best option to spend their money on — they can read reviews, see videos, view websites, speak to employees. Attracting people to your business is harder than ever, and companies spend £000,000s worth of time to develop business plans trying to negotiate this.
Continuous improvement aims to respond to such a competitive market with small, evolutionary changes implemented by the people who are doing the work. Key to this is giving those people the permission to make changes — it is giving people permission to not need permission. What this does is distribute authority, and conveys the message to people that they aren’t simply a small fish in a huge ocean. They have the power to shape their own working and that of their team by knowing what ‘acceptable’ is, and striving for better.
*Peterson, Alan J.; Reid, R. Dan (1999, ASQ) Plexus Corporation, St. Paul, MN; GM-Powertrain, Detroit, MI