CI 101

How is Communication in a Continuous Improvement Culture?

Poor communication affects productivity, quality, customer experience, and costs money.  According to David Grossman, as reported in his article The Cost of Poor Communications, the total estimated cost of employee misunderstanding among 400 surveyed corporations in the U.S. and U.K. is $37 billion.  On top of that, many companies spend a good chunk of money every year in communication training.   If poor communication is so critical for the successful operation of any business, can you imagine how critical it is when you are trying to change the culture?  

Clarity of purpose and transparency are critical elements of the lean culture, effective communication is imperative.  To be able to inspire people with a shared vision of the future that the company wants to build using continuous improvement, you need clarity of purpose.  Everybody needs to know and understand how their daily work supports the company’s strategic vision.  To achieve the dramatic change from traditional to a continuous improvement culture, people need to trust.  Trust grows within the organization when transparency exists, and people receive the information they need.  For this, effective communication is an essential ingredient.

As a leader, your job is to communicate, 80% of the time you are communicating instructions, expectations, policies, news, standards, and others.  A leader in a continuous improvement culture is expected to be a role model and a teacher, which are forms of communication.

If you search for effective communication, you will find a lot of resources offering different characteristics and ways to achieve it.  One thing that I learned through my career is that you need to know when and where or how to communicate and to follow the three C’s of effective communication.

Know your audience

One of the best ways to quickly improve the effectiveness of your communication is to adapt your communication style to match your team member’s styles.  Who are you going to communicate with?  You need to know his or her communication style, how do they like to receive the information and the level of detail.  Adapt your vocabulary and examples used to the receiver.  Remember that not everybody understands the same kind of jargon.

Choose the best time to start your conversation.  Do not try to discuss something with a person who is in the middle of an important task.  Show respect, ask for a good time to talk.  Where the communication takes place is also influential. You don’t need a meeting for everything, sometimes a short conversation over a coffee is more than enough.  Other times an email is ok, but always remember that face to face communication is better.  If you choose to send a written communication schedule a follow-up conversation to ensure the message gets through as intended.

The three C’s of effective communication

All types of communication need to have at least these three basic characteristics, clarity, collaboration, and consistency.  

Communication has to be clear and simple, avoid fancy words if they are not critical to convey the message.  It has to be complete but concise to prevent misunderstanding and gives people the information they need.  

Effective communication is a collaborative process, in which two or more people contribute to the talking subject.  Communication is a two-way process where both parties send and receive information.  If you talk without expecting any interaction from the individual(s) you are talking with, you are making an announcement not communicating.  Don’t try to dominate the conversation, give other people a chance to express themselves.

Be consistent, commit to your message and act the same way always.  When your words and actions do not match, you lose trust, and credibility.  

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 the people is critical for success.  In continuous improvement, we want to make the standards and the deviation from them, visible.  We want to communicate the standards and performance against them.  5S, visual management, visual displays, kanban, and others are forms of communication.  They are tools to ensure transparency and keep the clarity of purpose by making the information and standards visible.  

CI 101, Leadership

10 Ways to help your team to build self-discipline

To achieve a successful continuous improvement culture implementation, leadership needs to Develop new behavior patterns.  Leadership will learn new skills and teach them to the team at the same time, which is a monumental task.  Everybody will have to practice self-discipline to let go of old habits and embrace the new ones.  The heart of the continuous improvement or lean system is a highly flexible and motivated team member that is always improving.  How do you motivate your employees while helping them to create new habits?  Here is a list of ten things you can do to help them to build self-discipline.

  1. Model the new behaviors every day, go to gemba, ask with respect, and always explain why.  Set a good example, teach your team how to do it, be consistent and persistent.  
  2. Foster an environment of respect and collaboration.
  3. Encourage daily improvements, kaizen events, PDCA, and root cause analysis.
  4. Take your time to listen, get to know your team, and become a teacher and a facilitator.
  5. Give feedback often, create a reward system, and a formal performance appraisal program, which includes a real development plan.
  6. Give specific instructions and communicate clear expectations, follow-up, and assess.
  7. Ensure everybody knows what performance metrics are used to measure success and make them visible.  
  8. Conduct daily stand-up or huddle meetings, discuss what we did good, what we can improve.  Celebrate the wins!
  9. Promote customer satisfaction to see the process from customer lenses.
  10. Be present, visit the workplace every day, not just when there are problems.  And when you go, acknowledge the good things your team is doing and come back with at least one improvement idea.

When employees participate daily in housekeeping, small improvement steps, problem-solving, and standards review they start to see the difference from the previous culture and understand the benefits of the continuous improvement culture.  Learning and becoming an integral part of the company’s success are ways to make them feel that their work is meaningful, and you appreciate it.  When leadership is showing them what to do and how to do it they not only learn but start to build trust and discipline to do what is expected.

CI 101

How do you develop new behaviors while creating a continuous improvement culture?

As a business owner or top leader of a company, you are thinking about implementing continuous improvement.  This means that you will need a culture change.  To learn how leadership and the team will react to it, you need to understand a few things before.  You need to learn about the current culture and the company history regarding policies, salary systems, and politics, before planning the implementation.  That information will also help you to identify what needs to change and highlight the challenges to create a new culture.  Develop new behavior patterns, is the fourth action from the top leadership to-do list to achieve the elements of a successful CI implementation.  

Commonly, past collective experience is based on thoughts and behaviors that you need to change.  A culture based on disrespect, lack of appreciation, lack of clarity, dysfunctional competition, us versus them mentality, and values talk without action is no longer acceptable.

We need to guide people with a clear, inspiring, and shared vision of the future.  Continuous improvement is not easy, and although it has many sweet rewards, it also has disappointments and brings some failures as well.  Be honest about the challenges in front of them, answer their questions, and never back up from the objective.  Talk the talk, but most importantly, walk the talk, a voice without action will not do any good to gain the trust of your employees.

Leadership must become coaches who are communicating the idea of continuous improvement all the time.  Every leaders’ responsibility is to model the desired behaviors.  Learn and practice lean thinking and promote challenging the status quo.  Prove with actions that it is ok to try and fail as long as you never stop trying.  Show them how to test new ideas using a system like PDCA.  Get used to reflect upon every win, and every loss, share the lesson learned and use them to improve the improvement process.

Leaders should watch for stress reactions, such as threats, resignation, or illness.  They need to work with those affected to understand why and create an action plan.  It is normal to feel high levels of stress or fear because the team is still weighing if they can trust the new culture.  There are many uncertainties during the change, and for that reason, constant, honest, and effective communication is critical.

Set achievable milestones, prioritization, and practice positive feedback.  Develop a fair performance assessment program designed to develop people’s skills and not to punish them.  Avoid anything that can result in frustration or underutilization of individuals. 

As I said before, as long as leadership keeps fulfilling their continuous improvement responsibilities, implementation will keep going and slowly, but surely, the culture will change.