CI 101

What is the role of leadership in implementing continuous improvement?

Leadership defines the organizational culture, and the company culture determines how employees react to the news regarding continuous improvement or lean implementation.  For that reason, they carry a heavyweight to change, model, and sustain the new culture.  In my last post, I listed five actions to do to achieve the elements of a successful CI implementation.  Today I will discuss the third one, which is to Demand leadership responsibility.

We can summarize their new responsibilities in five pieces. 

  1. Understand the current culture and learn what needs to change to have a CI culture.
  2. Learn continuous improvement principles by doing.
  3. Develop the team by teaching what they just learn.
  4. Motivate participation.
  5. Model the new behavior.

Just as the CEO or top leader had to study the current culture and how it would affect implementation, other leaders have to do the same.  It is important to see the difference between present practices and continuous improvement culture.  They need to understand how the current situation will affect their implementation efforts.

Change creates stress on employees; how much depends on the culture.  When employees do not trust management, the level of stress will be higher. The fear of losing the job or getting new responsibilities will affect their performance and the reaction to those changes.  Effective communication is critical to relay the correct message.  The leadership group should explain what is going to happen, when, how, answer their questions, and clarify doubts. 

As the top leader, you have to model this behavior and show them what you expect to see.  Although you can expect some resistance, keep coaching them, take your time to ensure they learn the basic concepts.  Be calm and patient but do not accept deviations from the expected behavior.  Those who cannot adopt the new model become roadblocks.  There are only two options for them, they learn and adapt, or unfortunately, they will have to go.  

Learning new behaviors and ways to do things is never easy.  When you have to learn and teach your team, what you are just learning, it makes you feel uneasy.  Supervisors and managers are used to having all the answers, that is what people expect from them.  During this journey, they will learn while they are teaching.  They will realize how much they learned, or not at the moment they have to explain those principles and tools to their team.  They will feel vulnerable not knowing the answers or making the mistakes.  One of the first things that everybody needs to learn, is that in continuous improvement it is ok to make mistakes.  Continuous improvement is about using a systematic approach to learn about the process and improve it, one step at a time.  

The beauty of this is that while the leader learns, the team learns as well.  It is a welcome change when they see that their supervisor is learning and doing the same as they are.  While the leaders become coaches, the team is empowered to learn new things, and unleash their creativity to improve their own work.  It is important to highlight that these coaches are going to teach by showing how to do it, follow-up for questions or doubts, and then let go.  They are not supposed to have all the answers, the team is driving the solution of the millions of little problems they have every day.  

It is a leadership job to walk the working areas to observe the process, ask questions with respect when they notice that there is a deviation between the standard and the actual performance, and challenge the team to fix it.  It is also their job to support the team and help by providing resources and removing roadblocks when it is needed.  They need to model the behaviors they are asking their team to have.  There is no more do what I say, not what I do.  Effective leaders lead by example.  It is part of their daily job to promote lean thinking and insist on using the CI tools.As long as leadership keeps fulfilling their continuous improvement responsibilities, implementation will keep going and slowly, but surely, the culture will change.  This entire process takes time, blood, and tears, but all that is nothing compared with the rewards.