By separating the negative concept of turbulence from the more positive conflicting of opinions, I opened the door for a new concept in managing, but created a lot of e-mail responses to the article.
Most of the mail coming into the newsletter asked about the idea of continuous improvement (CI) in the workplace and asking that I devote some time to this concept. As a business Strategic Planner, I find the very process of planning, reviewing, and changing to create a continuously improving business environment, but specific CI programs can create significant improvements in the business over a period of time without appearing to customers as if anything has really changed.
Let's create an example of a company responsible for providing a service like the management of construction projects. Each project is successful in its overall outcome, but results in a few problems that create negative publicity for the company. Using traditional management techniques, the company might focus on explaining the problems while replacing people who have been responsible and hurting the company. Unfortunately, focusing on damage containment is rarely successful in the long run and creates an environment of distrust within the organization. Letting people go when there are project problems is also not a successful tactic, because the replacement might avoid the specific issues, but may create a new series of problems.
The management method used by some companies is to recognize that mistakes will occur in the course of doing business, but that it is best to learn from the mistakes and striving to correct the environmental issues that caused the mistake. This is both a powerful management tool and a powerful marketing tool. Here is how that works.
When a project is completed, the company practicing Continuous Improvement brings in the project team, the client, and the subcontractors who were involved in the project. They will often use an outside person to conduct a review of what they did right and what they did wrong. They evaluate perceptions verses reality and discuss how they could have done things differently. A list of potential improvements is created and reviewed at the kick-off meeting of the next project they handle.
One important aspect of practicing Continuous Improvement is the need to not discipline people for admitting their own mistakes or failings. Good companies recognize that people make mistakes and use these as opportunities for improvement. This is the reason why it is often recommended that a consultant be used to facilitate the review meetings. A third party consultant provides the employees a buffer between themselves and management when admitting their mistakes. Managers and owners sometimes have difficulty separating the employee's performance from the employees themselves.
What if a company makes a specific product or sells to customers as in the case of a manufacturing facility or a retail store? The manufacturing facility may use a different technique to evaluate their operations. A manufacturing company might bring the workers together in a facilitated quality meeting to examine their workplace practices and attempt to learn where improvements can be made. Again, an outside consultant can be brought in to facilitate this process in order to reduce or eliminate the tendency for people to not be open around their own managers.
Retail operations often use professional shoppers to evaluate their employees, but there is nothing to prevent a third party to routinely observe the operations in a store and take a few notes as the owner or employees interact with customers. I have done this for a few of my retail clients and saw patterns of behaviors they had no idea they were doing. If done on a regular basis, it can improve the operation of the store and customers will only notice a slight improvement each time they visit.
One thing a good consultant can do that is very difficult for their own management is to separate the employee's behavior from the employees themselves. This is a difficult concept for many managers to initially grasp, but it is based upon the idea that we as people are actually more like actors on a stage. Most people have multiple roles or scripts they might use as they go through their lives. The person at home might be in a parental role and act in a way that is much different than they might at work. The same person may have a different behavior pattern in a social situation. A third personality usually emerges as the individual walks into the workplace.
What causes this is too complex to address here, but I like to teach that people are like actors reading a script. At home the person reads from the parental script and tends to behave in the manner appropriate for that setting. The social script might be used in social settings, but the employee script is often used at work. The interesting thing is that employees are often more on their guard while they are on the work stage with their employers. When working with a consultant, they are unsure of the proper script so they will usually behave differently. This allows the consultant to have an easier time in changing behaviors and attitudes.
Regardless of the methodology used, it is a good idea to implement a continuous improvement program to keep your company evolving. How many times do we go into a company and they are doing things exactly the way they have done them for many years. How many of them suddenly discover another company has entered their market and they are in trouble. Keeping the company evolving and continuously improving will go a long way toward being more competitive.