The Four Most Important Letters in Continuous Improvement
Remember Mark Twain’s book, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer? On one hot summer day, young Tom Sawyer got stuck doing a hard day’s labor—whitewashing his aunt’s long picket fence. Mr. Twain tells the tale much better than I can, but the basic plot is simple. All morning long, Tom’s friends pass by and give sympathy to the poor lad stuck wielding the brush. In a stroke of brilliance, Tom, instead of accepting their sympathy, refuses to share the fun of painting the fence. To make a long story short, by the end of the day, Tom has collected a variety of payments from his friends for the privilege of sharing in the chore: a kite, marbles, a brass doorknob, a dog collar, many other assorted knickknacks, and for some strange reason, a dead rat on a string (don’t ask me to explain that one—I don’t get it either).
If you want to get your team engaged in continuous improvement (any effort to do more with less), you have to learn the same lesson that Tom did. You have to help your employees WANT to participate. You have to show them the most important four letters in continuous improvement:
WIFM. What’s in it for me?
Tom convinced the kids passing by that painting was fun. They not only ended up doing the work for Tom, but they also paid him to do it. Although his friends end up happy in the moment, the reader knows that Tom put one over on his buddies. Why? Because there was no real, long-term benefit to them for completing the task.
Fortunately for you, continuous improvement really is good for the people in your company—if you do it correctly. The challenge is that employees hear about how great it is for the company, but they may not always see how Lean benefits them individually. If they don’t really get that there is something in it for them, they often just end up just going through the motions.
Follow these eight pointers to help engage your teams in your Lean environment:
1. Really listen to your frontline employees
Your staff’s reaction will either make or break your continuous improvement effort. Take the time to find out what changes they are looking forward to and what their biggest concerns are. Not knowing what your employees really think may come back to haunt you later on.
2. Recognize that everyone is different
Every person has his own set of needs. Trying to meet all of your employees’ requirements with a single set of benefits is a mistake. Make the effort to find out what each one really values at work. Do they want more overtime, or less? Do they prefer a flexible schedule, or do they like consistency in their routine? Do they like variety, or are they more comfortable with structure throughout the day? Align your improvement projects in a way that get the company closer to its targets, but also help your employees get more of what they want.
3. Don’t assume that corporate goals inspire your team
Team members want to do well in their jobs, but not everyone will get excited about inventory turns or working capital reduction the way you do (and some might not even know what the terms mean!) They want the company to be successful, but that is (at least in part) linked to a need for job security, a desire for annual raises, and recognition that if the company struggles, the belt may be painfully tightened. If the company does better, how exactly will the employee’s life improve? Show them.
4. Address the bad stuff
Don’t paint a picture that doesn’t match your employees’ reality. The fact is, some teams have it easy before Lean. For example, Standard Work might eliminate some down time. When Lean takes away something that employees value it creates resentment and resistance. This is not the time to convince them that Lean is good for them. Just acknowledge that Lean makes some things harder, but then focus on the things that really are better.
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5. Be honest and realistic
If you set high expectations that never materialize, you crush your team’s commitment. They will do their part, but never see what was supposed to be in it for them. It will make it even harder to get your team on board with future changes.
6. Provide timely and relevant training
It is hard for employees to support something that they don’t understand. Training lets your teams know what to expect and combats the feeling of helplessness during endless change. Training also gives them firsthand knowledge of the things that Lean offers them.
7. Manage the pace
It is hard for employees to see the benefit of working on continuous improvement if the company is always facing a crisis. At the end of every month people should not be racing down the halls as if their hair was on fire, and teams should not be pulling out all the stops for every big customer order. Once in a while is OK, but if it happens too frequently teams will not be willing to put in the extra effort for continuous improvement. There’s no benefit to making improvements if the company is always going to be riding on the edge of the envelope. Employees have to see a glimmer of hope on the horizon, and a frantic pace obscures that glimmer.
8. Build relationships
Relationships with bosses and with coworkers are very important to employees. Help them build and maintain those relationships with you and their peers so they want to help you make Lean work. Make sure continuous improvement efforts don’t pit teams against each other or create adversarial conditions.
Use these pointers to start showing your employees what they can get out of continuous improvement. Once they get engaged in your efforts, your Lean success will really take off.
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By Jeff Hajek
February 20th, 2009
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