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Building a Culture of Continuous Improvement

| James Riley |

Standard Operating Procedures

In the last blog, I walked through things we have learned to be able to Write Great SOPs. This is great but it falls short if all you do is stop there. Businesses, people and processes should be continuously maturing and improving. The difficulty is in figuring out how to get this to happen in a consistent fashion.

Much of what we do well has come out of mistakes or our own deficiencies. For us, building a culture of continuous improvement has come from a similar place. Early in our business, I was advised to make sure that I built processes to define how people should perform their different functions. As I sat down to do this, I realized that I was horrible at it! To be clear, I am really good at seeing how to do a process well, how to improve it and breaking it down into steps to be performed. I even do a good job at teaching others how to do something. Where I struggle is in codifying those steps into a defined process. As we added team members, we took an approach where I would teach them how to do something and, as I taught them, they would document it. The next time the task came up, they would perform it, from the documentation, and I would supervise and tweak as necessary. This was the foundation of our continuous improvement culture.

Shortly after initially training people how to do things, I would launch them to do the tasks on their own. It was at this point that I realized that there was a beauty to our approach that I hadn’t foreseen. Because the process that was being followed had team members’ names in the author column, there was a sense of ownership. This sense of ownership led to pride. As our team worked with a process and found it deficient in some way, instead of just struggling through it because it was some kind of “edict from above”, they felt empowered to upgrade the process. This empowerment has become viral in our organization to the point that we have processes, that I originally built, that I do not know or understand anymore….Our team has improved them so much that the process is truly theirs, not mine.

Over the years, we have seen this same culture play itself out in many areas beyond process from customer service to the products and solutions we offer and much more. As our team has been allowed to take ownership and has been empowered to effect change, they take pride in improving the world they operate in.

We have found a few core things are critical in order to build this culture of continuous improvement.

Give Context/Define Why

When people understand why they are following a process or why a specific product is used, it gives them context. That context gives them a framework in which to understand why a process is done a certain why, why a specific product is used, etc. This creates a playground in which people can operate with a given process, product or whatever, with an understanding of the intent and spirit of what is currently in place. From here, people can launch into finding better ways to deliver the intended outcome while not deviating from the defined intent.

Engage Team Members

While this is a repeat from the blog on writing great SOPs, it bears repeating. When making critical decisions, especially on things that will benefit from continuous improvement, engage your team. This engagement presents you with a wealth of knowledge and insight that you may lack while also giving them insight into the decision making process. When they feel engaged, that engagement rarely ends once a decision is made…team members usually continue to actively engage and make iterative improvements as a decision is put into action. This kind of empowerment causes continuous improvement to become viral in nature.

Expect Failure

With any improvements, expect failure. Giving your team permission to fail is vital to continuous improvement. When team members are afraid of failure or the perceived or real consequences of failure, they will tend to either be paralyzed in fear, strike out in rebellion or just leave…none of which are good options.

Build Left and Right Boundaries

While allowing continuous improvement to become a viral event and empowering your team to fail sounds great, what about when it gets out of control? Yep, it most definitely can. We have managed this by defining what we call left and right boundaries. We do this by telling them, for example, not to let something go beyond one point or another. As an example, in relation to failure, we want to avoid catastrophic failure. As such, we define catastrophic failure and talk through things that we know can and will cause catastrophic failure while talking about areas that seem ripe for experimentation and exploration.

Model the Right Behavior

Continuous Improvement should not be limited to a select group of team members or specific areas of practice. To build a culture of this, it has to be pervasive in every aspect of your organization. One of the best ways to show this is to share with team members how their leadership is working to continuously improve, how they are failing and how they are improving off of those failures. Setting this example, both of improvement and failure, tends to give team members permission to follow that model.