Improve or not, that is the question…

continuously_improve_work_conditionsWhen I first heard about and started to practice continuous improvement, it seemed great that my employer wanted me to think about how to improve the business. That was back in 1985 when I worked with Japanese giant, Ricoh. After Ricoh, I joined another Japanese company, NEC, and they also practiced continuous improvement, also known as Kaizen.

Kaizen was not just practiced by some specialized management group, but the mindset and practice was encouraged and practiced by everyone in every role throughout the company.

After these formative years as a young manager in these two Japanese companies, I expected every company to have some desire to continuously improve their products, operations, processes and people.

Now of course almost all did through a recognized and formal quality management system, often ISO 9001 or QS9000. At least this was true in European companies. However I was in for a shock when I moved to America in 1998.

Few had heard of  ISO9001 stateside. But the greatest shock to me was that almost every employer, at least the many I have worked for over here, had no recognized formal process to acknowledge, and implement employee improvement ideas at all.

A few did have crude suggestion boxes, but very few made it part of their mission to continuously improve their processes as part of normal business.

So I started to think about why that was so. The main answer I came up with was complacency, ego, pride and an unwillingness to see any other view but group think or the NIH (Not Invented Here) monster.

I sensed that most companies were so wealthy, few really bothered to measure and nail down detailed costs of waste and time, few were unaware of their true costs of operations, and process performance. Labor was their biggest overhead, so it was alway easy to just hire and fire at a moments notice when a business downturn occured.

It was like people in leadership positions had a sickness and disease that they didn’t know about that was in effect killing their people. Killing their desire to make a contribution to improving their workplace or work process. Many employees would admit once they tried to share their ideas, their manager would claim their idea as his or her own, or shoot the idea down in flames, so who would try repeatedly to present a future idea to that kind of response. Many thought it hopeless.

Over the years I’ve heard the talk of many in HR and management about employee engagement, and the single most effective method, from experience of engaging employees is by intentionally encouraging their feedback about their workplace, work processes, and what they’d like to see improved, because they are the ones of the front line, from customer service to the receiving dock.

They, more than anyone know best about what is, and what is not feasible, what could be improved or not.

But this simple step is almost completely absent from many American companies.

What is even more ironic, is that nowadays, companies are almost paranoid about gathering customer feedback, but hardly anyone invites employee feedback.

It’s like leaders are killing their people softly. Often egotistical managers, thinking so highly of themselves, couldn’t stoop to invite feedback from their employees [This style of manager is ‘command and control‘, not  Servant Leaders, ‘coach‘ or ‘facilitator‘ style, which I have found most effective myself over the years].

There are exceptions, and in the UK, those that invested in a government sponsored program aptly name Investors In People (IIP), include continuous improvement and employee engagement as part of the operating principles. No such program exists in America that I’m aware of, except the Malcolm Baldridge award.

Investors In People Wheel
Investors In People Maturity Continuum

I’m always impressed by companies that do include continuous improvement within their vision and mission.

I was fortunate to work at Whole Foods Market (WFM) in 2001, during a time when I was laid off, and I enjoyed a short season at the 91st and Metcalf store. They, thankfully, were open to hearing improvement ideas, and they operated team member selection, not by supervisor exclusively, but by team selection. That practice in itself is and remains innovative compared with other companies where the hiring decisions is made exclusively by a supervisor.

screenshot from IKEA 2014 video

And now IKEA open in Merriam, their mission includes actively requesting improvement suggestions from customers and employees alike, and also includes several key words in their mission that is an music to my ears:

continuously improve work conditions, and help to create a better everyday life for people and communities touched by our business

Today I’m waiting for an opportunity to rejoin the workforce once again.

This time, my #1 priorities for company selection, include:

  • Does the company have a formal process to hear and implement employee ideas?
  • Does leadership operates from the servant leader /coach model not command and control?
  • Does the position include opportunities for physical movement as part of the job, not sitting at a desk for most of the day, but moving about, with face to face human interaction, helping and encouraging?

I heard about another company seems to be walking it’s talk through servant leadershipHome Depot. A manager friend said:

“Their(Home Depot) philosophy is that of servant leadership. As a manager I’m there to nurture, coach and develop my associates. This comes from the top down. Former CEO Frank Blake was an excellent example of a servant leader. It doesn’t come easy for some managers, not their style. I’ve been blessed to have a district management team full of servant leaders, however I’ve run across some bad managers.”

Hearing that was music to my ears and heart. I added that ‘bad’ managers. if not dealt with do impact associate engagement though. We had an expression in my last UK company – ‘Change the Manager, or Change the Manager.’ The ‘bad’ manager would be told in a performance review where they fell short, and given 90-180 days to improve, or they’d be let go. Great servant leaders have no hesitation in making the decision to let even ‘top’ sellers go because in long term they hurt the congruity of the company culture, and brand reputation for employees who are also customers.

Note: I avoid ‘bad/good’ language because it is subjective, and general. It does not help the person who is being ‘labeled’ or ‘pigeonholed’ nor their manager help resolve any performance issues. Unfortunately some so called leaders do not live from thinking the best of their fellow human beings, and gossip is rife which only perpetuates this generalized language by leaders, and associates alike. In some cases, people are reprimanded and even fired based on gossip alone, sad but true.

“Help us improve!” soliciting feedback from customers and employees at IKEA

So, if no such processes or leadership exists, then no amount of salary or benefits will ever make up for this leadership oversight, because it’s likely the NIH monster exists and is alive and firmly entrenched.

Usually only severe financial pain through loss of business, or high employee turnover will wake the leadership team long enough to look around and seek new ideas. Like fellow countryman, Winston Churchill once said:

Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened.

Some companies clearly have and execute more respect for people than others and demonstrate that commitment by seeking improvement ideas – some still just talk about being the ‘best place to work‘, but offer no such opportunities

Food for Thought

  • Does your company have a formal process for gathering, selecting and implementing employee improvement ideas?
  • Is your leadership style one of servant leader, or command and control? Have you measured the financial and cultural impact cost on your reputation of one style versus another?

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