03 Sep 7 Ways Leaders Help Establish a Culture of Continuous Improvement
Continuous improvement is a means by which organizations align their operations to strategic business goals through incremental improvements. Continuous improvement also allows organizations to adapt to changing factors in the marketplace, stakeholder requirements, technology and standards. Continuous improvement is more than a process or set of guiding principles, but a philosophy for the organization to embrace as a collective entity. Continuous improvement requires leadership and teamwork on all levels of the organization and a desire to assessing all strategic areas and leverage the combination of people, processes and data to drive mission-critical business decision. Through improvement initiatives, teams obtain mutual commitment to the business and enhancements to professional development and an increased sense of accomplishment along with organizational progress.
Leaders within the business play key role in establishing a culture of continuous improvement. Culture is the sum of attitudes, customs and beliefs exhibited by a particular group of people. When applied to continuous improvement, the culture is one of learning – where questions and answers are produced at all levels of the organization. Some indicators for a culture of continuous improvement include curiosity (questions being asked), reflection (continuous review and seeking feedback), tolerance of failure and vulnerability (recognizing that things do not work and making appropriate corrections), use of feedback (using data and assessments), systems thinking (looking holistically at the business).
Leaders within a culture of continuous improvement demonstrate the following characteristics:
Persistence – a leader would hold firm to the value and direction of strategic objectives regardless of the difficulty or opposition to changes in the environment. Leadership needs to be shown on all levels of the organization as it pertains to each opportunity for improvement.
Embrace real change – Leaders drive proactive change which is tangible, quantifiable and critical to the organization
Manage what is measured – Leadership understands what should get measured and how measured results have value; then they use these results to manage operations and drive improvements
Reliance on data – Leaders rely on reports, assessments, feedback and other data to understand the business clearly and identify opportunities for improvement. They use the same data sources to confirm whether improvement initiatives were successful.
Work smart, not more – Leaders understand that success does not come from getting people to do more, but being more effective and efficient in what is already being done. “Smart work” in continuous improvement means doing small-scale projects, initiating pilot programs, and tracking benefits.
Require agreement – Leaders seek this agreement for all aspects of the improvement initiative, including objectives, parameters and responses to failure. They seek this agreement from sponsors, stakeholders, team members and customers in these matters.
Goal-oriented – Leaders will set objectives with the team, yet give members the freedom to make decisions to achieve objectives.
Trust – A leader must trust the experience, skills and knowledge of each team member, not just in achieving objectives, but providing feedback and driving change. Leaders know how to delegate effectively and are able to reconcile conflicts between team members.
Prioritize – In the ocean of possible improvements a business may have, leaders have the ability to hone in on those ideas which have the greatest value to meeting objectives and deliver better benefits.
Support learning – Leaders learn and they provide opportunities for the people around them to learn. Lessons learned is a common initiative used after a project for the team to understand how they achieved, or did not achieve, project objectives and make corrections for the next project.
Continuous improvement means change, which is typically resisted by employees. Leaders cannot simply drive change in the organization but can create a culture with which the necessary changes are accepted and embrace by entire workforce. Only with these capabilities can the organization sustain the results of continuous improvement. Great leaders rely heavily on employees to come up with ideas and respond quickly to the best propositions. In a culture of continuous improvement, people seek opportunities to be more effective and efficient in every aspect of the business. In this type of environment, leaders provide priority and direction to those opportunities for the collective good of the workforce as well as the organization.