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How to Adopt a Continuous Improvement Culture

Have you ever failed your client, and want to do better? Do problems tend to build up until that final reveal where everyone must account for what went wrong? Do you ever feel like people should communicate better on a project? We love to throw around the word “iterative” when describing how we work. It conveys that we’re continuously improving our deliverables, and can present prototypes regularly. But what about our communication habits? What if we’re focused too much on problem solving, or too much on symptoms, instead of the root cause?

In this post, I wanted to dive into what a culture of continuous improvement really means, and how to get there. I discussed this topic with Missy Jackson, Managing Partner of The Vantage Group Inc., a coaching business that focuses on leadership development, strategic planning, teamwork training, and talent management. She has over 20 years of experience helping teams work on continuous improvement, and believes that our best work comes from collaboration rather than command and conflict. Missy shared four key philosophies that drive a culture of continuous improvement.


Where are you now?

Before we dive into the four philosophies, let’s do a pulse-check on where you are, or where you think you are, on the continuum of continuous improvement. Ask yourself the following questions:


1. Is your team unified around the fact that you do not want to pass along a defective product to your customer?


This is about unity around delivering quality. Without this, it’s hard to improve when there’s core disagreements on what the end goal looks like. Is your team unified under this simple goal? Can you all agree, definitively, what success and failure looks like? Are you clear on the goals of your project? Does everyone understand and agree with the communication expectations?


If you cannot agree on what successful communication looks like during a project’s life cycle, the four philosophies will be very difficult to achieve. My advice is to tackle this as soon as possible so that you can get that foundation laid down before it’s too late. Once we’re unified on our expectations, we can start to effectively highlight problems during a project.


2. Does your team believe that highlighting problems is a good thing?


This is about how comfortable everyone is with bringing up problems at any stage in a process. Highlighting problems in the moment is part of the continuous improvement mindset. Although we may not have a solution or idea on how to solve it immediately in the moment, we can begin to pay attention to what is happening so we can later identify the root cause.


3. Are people on the receiving end of your workflow engaged in the communication loop?


This checks how we view the people in our process. Do you seek engagement from everyone involved? Do you have a “customer first” mindset?


With this litmus test out of the way, we can look at the four key philosophies of continuous improvement. They will help illustrate a clear path for us to one day say a resounding yes to our three questions.


Customer First

Do you have a “customer first” mindset? I don’t mean just the end-user of your product. Your customer is whoever is next in your workflow process. Are you treating your handoffs like a deliverable to your customer? This first philosophy requires engagement and intentionality. When we start building up this mindset, we become more intentional about collaborating with our team. We start to notice more internal problems affecting our process.


Additionally, learning to see your internal customer just as much as your external customer is key in keeping the right people engaged. It’s easy to hold in check the idea that we never want to pass along a problem, or less than ideal solution, to our end user (external customer). But we have internal customers too. Think about anyone that is on the receiving end of your workflow, the next person in line to the process—they are your customer. Are you doing what you can to ensure that you have passed along a defect-free result that is ready to be taken and moved forward successfully? Are your workflow recipients engaged so that you can communicate delays or concerns?


People are Most Important

Although systems and processes are great, we will never replace the value of people. There are two reasons for this: Someone needs to build and run systems and processes; and this is why there is still someone at the end of a project or assembly line doing a final quality check. Humans are able to see and sense things differently than machines. People will always be the most important asset a company has.


When we hold people as the most important asset in our work, we compliment the initial “customer first” philosophy with more motivation to increase engagement. Engaging others in problem solving is important, especially those who are close to the work and understand what is happening. We may be led directly to the problem that has surfaced. In a continuous improvement mindset, those that highlight problems are the ones that are paying the most attention to workflow and the ease of process.


Kaizen is a Way of Life

Continuous Improvement is not an event or a one-time thing. It needs to become a way of life, the way we operate. When we commit to a systematic approach to problem solving, we don’t want to highlight problems if we’re going to do nothing about them. Rather, we need to focus on seeing problems as an opportunity to improve.


When we adopt a continuous improvement mindset, rather than just a problem solving mindset, we begin to see that highlighting problems is a good thing. Why? Highlighting problems means that we have an opportunity to improve, to get better, to work on removing the human struggle in the process, to remove the barriers that are getting in the way of work flow, and to create a better and more effective way with what we now know and understand.


Solving problems, through a continuous improvement mindset, requires a more systematic approach to ensure that we get to the root cause and do not just slap that band-aid solution on and mask over the problem. Like a wound that hasn’t been cleaned out, it will only fester and resurface again, and likely get worse. Once our team accepts that highlighting problems is a good thing, we won’t be afraid to bring up issues with communication, technical problems, or other areas of concern. We’re already unified by our goals and communication expectations, so problems that threaten our goals will be accepted much more easily.


Shop Floor Focus

Your shop floor is wherever the work is happening. We need to regularly spend time on the shop floor experiencing, observing, and understanding the work that is really happening. Making assumptions from a disconnected space will almost always lead you to solve for symptoms or something else entirely. This can make the problem worse. Engaging with those closest to the work, in the moment, is where the best problem solving will occur.


Highlighting problems in the moment is part of the continuous improvement mindset. Although we may not have a solution or idea on how to solve it immediately in the moment, we can begin to pay attention to what is happening so we can later identify the root cause.


Conclusion

Everyone should be ready and willing to highlight problems and be part of building theories to test potential solutions. Building a culture of continuous improvement takes time, but when you get there, it’s a beautiful thing!


I wanted to give a special thanks to Missy for taking the time to contribute her thoughts on this topic. You can learn more about her and her business here:


Missy's LinkedIn Profile

The Vantage Group Inc.


Written by David Crawford, Mobile App Developer


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