How to promote innovation, a must-know for leaders.

Leaders must know to promote innovation and the attitude to never stop exploring, learning, and growing.

Innovation is crucial for the success of any organization.  Finding out-of-the-box ways to improve the operation or satisfied your customers can give you a competitive edge over your competitors. Innovation can produce a new product or service.  It can also help you to empower your team.  Regardless of the purpose, creative thinking is a must.  Given the competition out there, leaders need to know how to promote innovation as part of the daily processes.

To promote innovation, develop your team’s skills.

To empower the team, leaders need to ensure they have what they need.  How do they know what skills to develop?  Some skills, like problem-solving or data visualization, are easy to recognize, but others are not.  If you are not sure, go to the best source for this information.  Ask your team member what do they need for success?  What skills or knowledge do they like to develop?  Then, evaluate if the request is reasonable or worth the resources. Finally, approve the request or work with them to find a solution that fits their needs and aligns with the company goals.

Create a safe place to learn.

One of the rules for a kaizen event is to create a safe place to learn, voice ideas, and test their hypothesis.  A safe environment is fundamental for a learning experience.  Employees are more likely to engage in the problem-solving or creative process when they feel safe.  Creating such a place is one-way servant leaders show that they care about their team. The absence of fear of losing their job or retaliation is critical for innovation.  

Even when there is no fear of losing their job, exposing themselves to failure is a deterrent.  Although in continuous improvement, you win or you learn, it feels like a failure if you don’t get what you expected. To change that, leaders will need to step up and model the expected behavior.  

Promote innovation modeling the expected behaviors.

They can model them in two different ways.  First, they can show how to react when they face failure.  Great leaders do not hesitate to show their vulnerabilities.  Leaders make mistakes like everybody else.  When people see the boss has fears or insecurities about following his ideas but do it anyway, they feel good.  It is that aha moment when they realize that their boss is human and feels fear like they do.  

The second way to model correct behavior is by demonstrating the expected reaction when things turn out differently than expected.  During those times, it is normal to feel defeated or upset.  However, it is the reaction to that feeling what counts.  Instead of roaming your sadness or anger, good leaders show their team that it is ok not to win all the time.  Ask your team how they feel and let them vent their emotions.  

After that moment of relief, reset the mindset by showing them how to reflect on the lessons learned. With those learning on hand, adjust the plan and test it.  Moreover, show them to never stop exploring, learning, and growing!  

Ask without telling, the art of asking questions

To make good questions and help your team to develop their problem-solving skills, you need to know how to ask without telling.

One thing that everybody does every day is asking questions.  We ask questions to learn, clarify doubts, or obtain information.  As a leader, you ask questions to learn about a situation.  Also, you make questions to guide your team on their learning process.  However, are you asking or disguising your solutions as questions?  To promote a learning environment, leaders need to ask without telling.

Sometimes a leader needs to tell

Leaders have the responsibility to communicate, set direction, and provide a purpose.  To accomplish them, they tell information and share news or concerns with their team.  Moreover, there are times when they need to set direction.  Sometimes, there is a need to change a strategy or adjust a plan.  When that happens, the leader tells the group what the change is and why it is needed.  Also, how it will affect them and the new expectations.  During these situations, telling is the right thing to do.

Another responsibility of leadership is to teach and coach their team.   The objective is to transfer knowledge and create capabilities.  While facilitating the learning process, leaders tell new information.

Finally, sometimes leaders need to advise people.  It is common to share previous experiences or tell a story to illustrate a point.  If that is the case, say what you are trying to do, do not hide it behind questions.  The best leaders are humble and compassionate.  There is nothing wrong with showing your humanity by using past experiences to illustrate a point.

Why do you need to ask without telling?

A servant leader’s job is to develop more leaders by teaching, motivating, facilitating, and supporting the team.  By asking questions without telling, they promote learning.  Also, their team’s confidence in their ability to solve problems and create more value grows.  As their confidence grows, their participation in the improvement process grows as well. 

A critical step to change the culture is to empower the people.  While asking questions with respect, leaders guide them to find answers by themselves.  By allowing people to use their brains and participate in the daily management processes and innovation, they feel more engaged with their work and happier when they come back home.  

How can you ask without telling?  How to ask better questions?

When you ask questions that people can answer with a simple yes or no, they don’t put too much effort. Closed questions do not lead to engagement or promote thinking.  When you don’t receive answers, the next thing you do is telling people what to do.  On the other hand, with open questions, people need to think.  Use the 5W and 1H to ask questions.  That is, reframe your questions using who, what, where, when, why, and how.

To keep the brain’s wheels turning, ask one question at a time and give people time to think.  In general, we are not comfortable with silence.  Therefore, right after asking something, people jump to tell their answer.  To be successful in asking without telling, you will need to become comfortable with silence.

Sometimes it is easier to ask closed questions.  Therefore, you would need to stop and think about how to reframe it as an open question.  There are two questions that I used often.  The first one is, what makes you think that way? or ” What do you think we can do differently?”  The second question I often used is, “How do you think we can accomplish that? 

Ask without telling that is what we should do.

Contrary to common perception, leaders are not supposed to have all the answers.  However, very often, they have ideas or solutions to share with the team.  During those times, tell the group that you want to share something with them.  You can always tell people, here is a suggestion and then ask how they can improve it.  Do not hide answers using questions.  Let people think, promote learning and problem-solving skills.

By telling, leadership is not fulfilling their responsibility of teaching and coaching.  Once again, this is a stop-and-think situation.  Think about your idea, do you have any doubts about it?  What parts of it need fine-tuning?  Use your doubts or unknown parts to ask open questions.

A continuous improvement culture seeks to foster a learning environment.  Servant leaders teach, motivate, facilitate, and support their teams.  Show them that you care by helping them to develop their skills and grow.  Learning how to ask questions without telling is a way to achieve that.

Asking good questions, what is the value of it?

By asking good questions the right way, leaders can uncover the root cause of a problem, the later big product, and much more.

One way to build trust in the workplace is to listen.  Listening is the most basic way to show respect.  Another way is by helping your team to develop their problem-solving skills.  To help people to get to the root cause of a problem, asking good questions is critical.  Although solving problems is of great value, asking good questions brings more value than that.

Uncover the root cause of a problem and get more

It is necessary to ask comprehensive questions to uncover the root cause of a problem.  For example, use open questions to ask what happened, how, and how often. This kind of question makes people think harder before answering.  The thinking process may bring with it new ideas and different ways to see things.  Moreover, it unleashes the hidden talents of the people.  

When people feel that their work is meaningful, they feel better about themselves.  Higher self-esteem is part of a good mental health state.  Some benefits of good mental health are more clarity of thinking, better mood, and anxiety reduction.  People with good mental health also experience an improvement in relationships.  That is to say that something that started with someone asking good questions ends up helping not just the team but their family.

Ask good questions to build trust

If leadership often communicates with team members at all levels, they have the chance to create relationships beyond problem-solving exercises.  Informal conversations are the perfect vehicle to know the person behind each team member.  It is also a chance for those team members to learn the human side of their leaders.

Some leaders are nervous about asking their people for ideas.  This hesitance many times comes from the fear of being weak or not worthy of their position.  However, when a leader asks for help, it is shows vulnerability which helps to build trust.  In other words, they show that they are honest about admitting that they know everything.  Also, asking for help Is a sign of modesty.  Good leaders are humble and trustworthy.

The value of asking good questions

Asking good questions is a skill that every leader should have.  By asking, they help their team develop new skills and learn new ways to do things.  Most of the time, those learnings are applicable not just at work but also in other settings.  Problem-solving Is one of those skills that are helpful everywhere.  

Team members that learn more and participate more from the site decision process through brainstorming and other activities feel better about their jobs.  The feeling of being part of a group and have a meaningful job brings the added value of good mental health.  An individual with good mental health has better relationships at work and home.

Finally, problem-solving is a team activity.  Therefore collaboration, creativity, learning, and trust are added benefits of the idea’s inquiry process.  For the business, the value of asking questions Includes better efficiency and lower costs.  Above all, it can impact employee satisfaction and retention.

By asking the right questions in the right way, leaders can discover the next big idea for their business, the solution to what stops them from sleep at night, or how to change their company culture. Moreover, they will positively impact their team by helping them to grow.

What are the characteristics of good communicators

Good communicators convey their thoughts clearly and with honesty.  Those are only two characteristics of good communicators.

Effective communication is one of the key elements for a successful continuous improvement transformation.  Therefore, being a good communicator is essential for leadership.  What are the characteristics of good communicators?

Characteristics of good communicators

Every step of the way during the transformation, leadership communication needs to be effective. Clarity is one of the characteristics of effective communication.  Convey all the necessary information with clarity is not easy.  Not only that but being concise and clear is even more difficult.  Good communicators master the art of getting their ideas across while being concise.   They share clear ideas, direct to the point, without fancy words.

To spark curiosity and the desire to learn and discover, asking the right questions is critical.  A good communicator knows how and when to ask.  They listen to the answers and use them to keep asking questions.  With this process, they guide people to learn lean thinking.  That is to say that asking questions is another way to communicate ideas and share information.

Honesty is always good!

Honesty is another characteristic of this group.  Changing minds and behaviors is not an easy task.  Influencing people to change requires a good dose of honesty while being respectful.  It also requires having tough conversations at the appropriate time.

In continuous improvement, root cause analysis is an everyday activity.  While investigating the reasons for failure, focus on the process.  Most of the time, this or the materials are the culprits.  However, sometimes a person did make a mistake.  Those times, you need to be honest without criticizing or blaming.  The way you present the facts will determine how the person feels and react in the future.  The trick is to provide feedback while motivating the person to keep learning and improving.  

Practice the characteristics of good communicators

Good communicators create a safe environment to have courageous conversations.  They are honest, empathetic, and compassionate.  Also, they practice active listening, convey their ideas with clarity and concisely.  The best communicators ask questions to understand and learn.  They are mindful of the tone of their words and the timing of the questions.  We all can learn to be better communicators.  With practice, we can become good ones.   

How can you help your employees to improve their workplace?

Help your employees to improve their workplace by creating a safe space to  test new ideas.

When leadership move away from command and control and empower their team, amazing things happen.  Once the team feels trusted and supported, they gain more knowledge about their capabilities.  This condition is critical to have them creating improvements in their areas.  However, it is not enough to ensure sustainability.  Leadership still must do more to help employees to improve their workplace.

Create a safe space for learning

A continuous improvement culture is about learning, experimenting, and reflection on the results to keep learning and improving.  In other words, continuous improvement promotes creating a learning enterprise.  To learn, the team needs to feel safe.  

People will share their ideas and expose themself to failure only when they know that there will be no retaliation.  Therefore, you must show with actions that testing new ideas and learning from failure is ok.  Better yet, that it is not only ok but encouraged.  

When things don’t go as planned, help the team to understand what happened.  Make them feel safe by focusing on the process, never on the people.  Do not talk about how the company metrics suffer, but how much knowledge you gain. 

Help your employees to improve their workplace by listening to them

As a leader, one of your responsibilities is to go to gemba every day, see for yourself and ask questions.  When you do, actively listen to your employees.  Listen to their concerns as well as their ideas.

They are the best source for ideas on how to improve their work area or processes.  Your job is to guide them by respectfully ask questions.  Ask them what help they need from you to succeed?  This help can be resources or training.

Help your employees to improve their workplace, learn what others are doing and share it with them.

Although there is no better way to learn than doing, learning from others is good too!  Being a member of a professional association has several advantages.  One of them is that you can get information about best practices in your industry.  Also, if your business has more than one location, create a structure to facilitate ideas sharing.  Although not always what others are doing is 100% transferable, you always learn something.  

Create a safe environment where the team is not afraid of sharing their ideas.  Listen to what they have to say and do what you can to help.  By testing new ways to do things, you win, or you learn. 

Influence to be effective as a leader

Motivate and inspire people from a position of influence rather than authority.

For most of my career, I was responsible for one or various departments within the organization. During that time, I share a vision with my team and work alongside them to make it a reality.  When things did not go as planned, I always had the option to use my authority to change course.  But when I started to learn about continuous improvement, I realize that CI is a peoples’ system.  The leaders’ job is to care about your team and help them grow and learn new skills.  Therefore, you do not want to use your authority to achieve things.  You want to use influence to motivate and inspire your team.  In other words, I had to learn how to use my authority less and use my influence power more.  

Influence as an effective way to gain followers

Effective leaders must be able to influence others’ behaviors.  Power is the ability to influence others to behave in a particular way.  When leaders are looking for support, the right way to gain it is from a position of influence rather than authority. Using your influence power, you can motivate your team and inspire them to learn and do new things.

What you need to be able to influence

When you are not honest, many people can see it through you.  Therefore, if you want to motivate people from an influence position, honesty is a critical ingredient.  Be authentic and sincere about your intention and goals.  Convince people to collaborate by explaining to them the complete picture. First, communicate why you want to do it.  Second, explain the pros and cons of the proposal.  Third, let them know what is in it for them.  That information is always critical to gain support.

A good leader practices those behaviors or attitudes that he or she is asking the team to have.  Be fair and flexible, do not ask the team to do something that you are not willing to.  Roll up your sleeves and work alongside them to figure out the best way to do it.

The future is in your hands

Provide your team with the goal, a collective vision of where the company will be in the future.  Once they know the target, empower them to find answers by themselves.  Coach them to find those answers but let them figure them out.  Remind them of the vision to ensure alignment between those goals and the company’s vision.

Your actions determine the future of the company.  The way you choose priorities and work to achieve targets is critical to success.  Moreover, how do you treat your team is the secret ingredient for a successful company.  Motivate and inspire from a position of influence rather than using your rank in the organization.

Good communicators listen, are you a good listener?

Are you a good listener?

Continuous improvement and lean need effective communication for its success.  Lean is a people-centric system, which means that the way you treat and communicate with people is critical for success.  Therefore, for a successful continuous improvement journey, you need to be a good communicator.  One of the characteristics of good communicators is that they listen.  Are you a good listener?

When you go out to the office, shop floor, or construction site, AKA gemba, you ask questions to understand what is happening.  However, you can ask good questions, but if you don’t listen, you are missing the point of visiting gemba.

What is a good listener?

Many people believe that being a good listener is let the other person talk without interruptions. Furthermore, nod or repeat a few words.  It is a common belief that a good listener repeats a few words to confirm that you understand.  But a good listener does more than that.

Continuous improvement fosters an environment of learning and discovery.  Asking the right questions helps to promote curiosity and observation.  Leaders are expected to teach and guide their team through questions.  Good communicators are thoughtful about the questions they ask.  The purpose is to understand and help the speaker to gain a deeper understanding of the situation.  In addition, you want to guide them to uncover more details.  For example, think about the priorities or benefits versus risks. 

A good listener uses active listening

Active listening occurs when you suppress the need to dominate the conversation or provide ways to solve problems.  Instead, you listen and focus on the speaker.  Be empathic with the other person.  Notice the speaker’s body language, tone, and emotions while it speaks.  Recognize the implication of the words by understanding how he/she feels.  

Create a safe environment to have an honest conversation.  Listen with curiosity and ask questions to understand.  Also, watch your body language.  For instance, maintain eye contact and use appropriate gestures.  Show respect by keeping your whole attention on the speaker. 

But there is more to it than listening and asking questions

In addition to asking questions, there is something more a good listener does.  A conversation is an exchange of ideas.  Clarify your doubts and restate their thought to confirm that you understand.  Provide feedback to keep the conservation going.  However, resist the urge to tell what to do.  Build upon the speaker’s ideas, help them to build their self-esteem. Answer their questions honestly and clarify their doubts.

Listening and cultural transformation

Effective communication at every stage of cultural transformation is crucial.  People need to know what, why, how, when, and who.  During the process, leadership work to facilitate the team’s work and develop their skills.  To increase their engagement, daily Gemba walks supported with effective communication are key.  

The team needs to know what the problem is and what you want to accomplish with a continuous improvement strategy.  Moreover, leadership needs to listen to what the team has to say.  If you don’t practice active listening and do something upon the subject of that conversation, the transformation will be broken.

Team communication, how do you know it needs to improve?

team communication

While I was facilitating a problem-solving session in a client facility, I noticed that something was wrong.  We were discussing the possible causes for the problem under analysis.  Three team members were very active in the discussion providing thoughtful ideas.  However, the rest of the group was either silent or being sarcastic.  Another person was constantly interrupting others while yelling.  I ask the event sponsor if those behaviors were normal, and he said they were.  He didn’t see it that way, but the team’s behavior was asking for help.  Those actions were a symptom of a deeper problem.  That is, team communication needed improvement.

How do you know team communication needs to improve?

The situation described above contains several signs that indicate the team communication is poor.  When a team cannot collaborate, productivity and quality can affect the company’s bottom line.  Therefore, it is a priority to learn how to identify those signs and fix them.

Despite having technical knowledge, the company from the example hire me as the facilitator.  The reason is that they have not been able to get the expected results.  

Be on the lookout for these signs

Over the week, I had multiple individual conversations with team members and the sponsor.  As a result, I identify several behaviors that affect communication.  All of them are signs of ineffective team communication.  

Confusion regarding responsibilities or priorities leads to frustration.  As a result, you can see duplicate work, missed deadlines, or not getting expected results.  In turn, those results create disappointment, anger, and more frustration.  When this happens, it is common to see disrespect as part of the culture.  For example, you can see rude reactions, demeaning communication, and finger-pointing.

People deal with frustration in different ways.  Sometimes, even when they are silent, their demeanor screams disagreement.  Team communication is failing when you sense that people have concerns but never voice their opinion.  Likewise, if they constantly interrupt the conversation or scream to ensure their voice is heard.  Another sign is when team members feel the need to compete against each other all the time.  At the same time, there is no collaboration.

How to improve team communication

Effective communication is one of the critical elements for a successful continuous improvement journey.  Another element is the cultural transformation from traditional to lean thinking.  A culture that values respect and teamwork fosters creativity and collaboration.  

People need to know how their work connects with the company goals.  Also, they need to understand how their actions affect the customers and business growth.  Knowing that information is easier to understand why collaboration is critical to the success of the company.  When the company is still in the early steps of the transformation, it is natural for some individuals to push back.  However, as soon as you notice behaviors like those previously indicated, it is time to enforce the new expectations.  Nothing demoralized the team more than seeing their leaders tolerating disrespectful actions.

Management responsibilities, what are they?

management responsibilities, what are they?

In one of my first classes of my master’s degree, I learned the management responsibilities or functions.  The professor indicated that management consist of four general obligations.  Those are planning, organizing, leading, and controlling.  However, the explanation failed to include the responsibilities of a leader from the continuous improvement lenses.

Planning as the number one responsibility

There is no doubt that planning is one of the most recognized functions of an entrepreneur or manager.  Planning should start with grasping the situation. Hence, define the problem or describe the desired state is the first step before start planning.  The following steps are to define the gap, create strategies, set objectives, and determine resources.  

In continuous improvement, planning entails the same things.  Perhaps, the method used is different because it involves people from different levels of the organization.  Strategy deployment addresses critical business needs by aligning goals, strategy and the company’s resources at all levels.  Moreover, it develops the skills and capabilities of the team.  It does so by engaging them to answer the question of how do we get there? Leaders guide their teams using their experience and PDCA.  The use of the PDCA cycle provides a framework to identify potential problems and countermeasures.  

Management responsibilities organizing and staffing

In a traditional enterprise, managers would design jobs, specify tasks, and allocate resources.  They would also create an organizational structure and set policies and procedures.  All that is still true in a continuous improvement environment.  However, there are a couple of differences in how to achieve those tasks.

In a CI culture, managers are also teachers.  Their main job is to develop themselves and develop their staff.  One way to do it is by teaching them how to manage the daily activities.  For instance, daily coordination activities, allocate resources, daily problem-solving, and standards creation.  Managers oversee and support supervisors and middle managers.  Support means teaching them how to do it and provide the resources.  It also means to listen to their concerns and help with high-level decisions.  Set them for success by establishing clear rules and limits, so they know when to escalate the problem or situation.

Leading and controlling, two more management responsibilities

While creating strategy, leaders set direction and provide a purpose.  Those tasks are critical to lead and motivate employees to accomplish organizational goals.  In addition, effective communication and clear rules to manage change and conflicts are also fundamental.  Some of those conflicts are related to employee performance.  In a traditional culture, controlling refers to measure performance and compare it to standards.  Also, this responsibility includes taking the appropriate steps as per the performance level.  That is recognition, salary increase, promotion, training, or a development plan to take care of weaknesses or inefficiencies.  

In a traditional setting, leading and controlling are seen as two different things, but in CI, they are part of one.  Leadership in a CI culture lead by example, teaching and coaching their staff while visiting the work area every day.  They motivate by providing learning experiences and challenging the team to be the best they can be.  Performance assessment is part of the development process.  However, it is focused on employee development, not a way to punish low performance.

What are the responsibilities of a manager, business owner, or entrepreneur?

Management’s job is to help the staff to do better by providing purpose and direction while supporting the daily activities.  In other words, managers should be servant leaders first, and everything else, second.

The daily activities should be the responsibility of the supervisors and their teams, including daily improvements.  Managers support their direct reports by listening and learning from them what help they need.  Then, they can allocate the resources, make high-level decisions, or remove barriers. 

When leadership does not respect their staff, it will command instructions and control their actions. In a continuous improvement culture, respect for humanity is a tenet.  Therefore, command and control are not a way to fulfill management responsibilities.  Most importantly, that behavior should be identified as non-acceptable and banned from the culture.

How companies show they care?

how companies show they care about its employees

Ask any company leader what their most important asset is, and they will answer the same, their employees.  But is that true or just the convenient collective answer?  If it is true, then words are translated into daily actions.  Companies show they care about their employees with actions, not fancy statements or values hanging on the walls.  

The best way to show a company cares about its employees is to build a culture of respect, trust, inclusion, and collaboration.  That is an environment where all members feel valued and trust to share their ideas without fear. Moreover, it is a place where leaders listen and take time to know the person behind the position.  Also, leaders would take time to develop their skills and help them to reach their potential.

Some ways companies show they care

Although nothing beats those things, it will not hurt if companies offer good benefits.  Leaders and companies committed to making their team a priority take the time to put together an attractive benefits package.

We all heard regarding companies that provide food and snacks services for free, video games, ping-pong tables, and more.  Those perks sound nice but are they what their employees want? A different option is to take the time to know what their employees’ value or need to craft a nice set of benefits.

Ways to show you care about their well-being

It is quite common to offer wellness programs as part of the benefits.  Examples of those programs are on-site weight management, high blood pressure or diabetes clinics, and gym subscriptions.  Unfortunately, sometimes those are offered by companies that show no respect for their employees’ health.  Ensure that your company does not foster or accept attitudes and behaviors that create a toxic environment.  Also, promote adequate rest, ask your team to take their time off.

Align perks, culture, and values to create a positive environment that fosters creativity and well-being.  The following examples are ways to show that you care about the person behind the position.

  • Give new parents time to be home
  • Encourage healthy behaviors by providing options for healthy foods.  Revise what kind of snacks you offer in the vending machines.  Do they match your health message?
  • Promote doing exercise with internal tournaments of popular sports like basketball or baseball.
  • Advertise ways to relax during their breaks while encouraging learning and skills development.  For example, create a small library with magazines and books.  The library can be a corner with comfy chairs, adequate lighting, and a bookshelf.
  • Promote using stand-up desks or converters.
  • Create a walking path around the building for your employees to walk during their breaks.  If there is enough space, a small garden would be nice too!

Give back to the community

Another way to make your employees feel appreciated is by showing respect and care for their communities.  Once again, align these programs with your company values.  Above all, align them with your actions.  For instance, do not say your company cares about the environment and then dump toxic waste down the creek.

  • Encourage volunteerism with days off
  • Help them help the community by creating teams to participate in efforts to participate in non-profit activities.
  • Promote and actively participate in recycling efforts.
  • Team-up with local companies and provide discounts for buying solar panels or other types of sustainable energy.

When companies show they care, great things happen

Caring for your employees is a way to show respect.  Employee appreciation is the right thing to do.  Also, it is good for the business.  Employees that feel appreciated by their leaders are more engaged and productive.  When they perceive that they can grow professionally and build meaningful relationships, their job satisfaction will be higher.  Therefore, they will be willing to contribute to the well-being of the company.