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The “new” business math: Continuous improvement = continuous learning

Continuous improvement comes in many shapes and sizes. It can be process improvements, product improvements, innovation or a culture shift. If it is a better way, then it is improvement. If it is built into a mindset of finding better way, then it is continuous improvement.

Training is one area that improvement comes from and is often overlooked. I’m not saying everything can be saved by training because sometimes it’s the system that needs to be changed and no amount of training will overcome a bad system. However, when training is the solution set, continuous training supports continuous improvements. Too often the business case of training is overlooked and undersold.

Often we think of training for people that are new to a job, a one and done mentality. However, continuous improvement requires continuous learning. How do people that have always done a job one way learn how to do their old job a new way? Training. But that means three things have to occur:

1. Training needs to begin by completing a real front-end analysis. Stop short cutting this step. You wouldn’t build a new production line without a study nor would you run a new set of ads without an audience analysis. So why would you build training without a front-end analysis? Discover your real business pain that needs to be addressed

2. Design a real answer (solution-set) that addresses real business pain (Six sigma calls this “finding the  burning platform”). If training isn’t the answer, then fix the system. Forget creating “check-a-box” training because it doesn’t work. Use real business metrics to drive and sustain continuous improvement

3. Follow-through with interesting “must have” training. We’ve all sat through some pretty boring content and checked the compliance box. Be better than that. Build something that challenges the team. Change a life. Build your business with the long game in mind.

When you find yourself sitting on the team that’s tasked to “improve the business” and training becomes a topic of discussion, be sure to include:

  • Funding for a front-end analysis to identify the knowledge and skills needed (determine the business pain)
  • Funding for training to occur (build it right)
  • Time in the schedule that provides a designated timeline to learn what is new (ramp up)
  • Training validation. Answer the question, did training improve the business case? (If you design for evaluation in the front-end analysis you can measure your metrics here)
  • Continuous learning. Training (Learning) is not an event but an ongoing process (change your culture)
  • Just Enough, Just in Time (JEJIT) includes job aids, checklists, performance support systems (support your team)

In today’s business, continuous improvement means learning new things continuously. If we are not learning, we are not improving. They feed off each other.

Be intentional

Change isn’t about the loose coins in your pocket

Well, it’s a new year. Change is in the air. Resolutions are made. Resolutions are broken. My husband jokes that the only change he likes is if it is loose and in his pocket. You know the old saying, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Change is always hard. It is even harder when we are surprised. So we try to anticipate it. We try to imagine what is coming or what will be, so that we are not surprised.

Sometimes this is good! Anticipating what may happen allows us to mitigate risk, plan ahead and be ready to act in a moment notice. Sometimes it is not so good. It causes rumors. It causes drama and takes our energies off the tasks we know are happening.

So what do you do? When do you anticipate and when do you not?

1. If the change in question has little effect on your day to day job, no mitigation plan required.

2. If the change in question has no effect on any decisions you have to make, no mitigating plan is required.

3. If the change in question directly changes a process you are responsible for, time to think through mitigation plans.

4. If the change in question directly changes how you make a decision, time to think through mitigation plans.

Be intentional

The value stream’s gift to you

Since it is the Christmas season and most are buying last minute gifts for friends and loved ones (even if you’re just the budget approver), everyone reading this is a customer. You, at some time, have paid for goods or services. You are your own judge of whether you got what you paid for. You review on Amazon, you like or dislike on YouTube, you buy again (or not) and you recommend (or not). It is your opinion. You vote with your money.

Inside business organizations, our “internal customers” are defined as the groups/teams/people we hand off to in the value stream. It could be the next operator on the assembly line (think providing goods). It could be the quality or engineering team supporting operations (think providing services). We stress the importance of understanding what our internal customers’ needs are and challenging ourselves to provide. We develop organizations to collapse silos and build bridges across functional groups to ensure our “internal customers” are provided for.

I see a potential issue with being an “internal customer”. What power do you have as the receiver of the goods or services to get what you really need and not just take what is given? It’s not like you can complain on Yelp about it. And unlike our daily buying choices, you don’t get to choose where your goods or services come from. You are a “captive” customer based on whoever is providing it.

Healthy companies understand that for an organization to work, internal customers must have a voice. Leadership must be the microphone that amplifies the voice.

Just say no to the status quo
Don’t just accept status quo. Step up at a meeting and set the expectation of what your team needs as the “internal customer”. Setting clear expectations allows the provider of the goods/service to work their resource constraints and set priorities.

We the people, in order to form a more perfect handoff
Every organization is made up of people. If the internal customer is not getting what is needed, leaders need to determine if the issue is systemic to the group or if it is a low performing individual. Addressing the right issue ensures the “internal customers” are provided for correctly.

The customer is never wrong, unless they are
Accept internal customer complaints with a proverbial smile. The motto “the customer is never wrong” may work at times and may need to be adjusted at other times. You have a version of the story, the internal customer has their version of the story and somewhere in the middle is the right story. At the end of the day – if you take the time to listen (not just hear) the customer’s issue, only then will you really understand the value you provide to your “internal customer”. What if your team can help their team “win”? What would that look like?

Why wait when you can pro-activate
I think it was Machiavelli who once said, “A small problem is hard to see but easy to fix, whereas a large problem is easy to see but nearly impossible to fix.” What are you waiting for? Pro-actively ask your internal customer if they are getting what they need from you or from your team. Send out a survey. Hold a skip level meeting. Invite them to your desk for a cup of coffee and cookies. You own your output’s input and vice-versa. Not asking can be seen as not caring.

So the next time you hear of an internal customer complaint – ask yourself if you’ve taken the time to get to know your internal customer. If not, ask yourself why not?

Be intentional

Support your internal problem solvers

Firemen are dedicated, fearless people. They understand their responsibility is to save lives and property. They train and practice to ensure they will be prepared to do everything possible to save lives and property. When they are not in the middle of a fire, they work with the community to reduce risks of fires. Their main job, though, is fighting the fire.

I would like to make a comparison of firemen to those people inside companies whose main contribution is solving issues. Every organization has a need for firemen – groups/teams that fix issues for the success of the team and the business. I have never heard of a fireman giving the owner of the burning house a lecture or complaining they had to come out at night to put out the fire. Firemen understand what their customer needs – someone to address the fire, NOW.

If you are the leader of firemen (or the fireman)…

  • Make sure your team brings water not gasoline.
  • They must come with an attitude of helping, not judging.
  • Make sure your team understands that the urgency needed to fix the issue should be done within schedule, within costs where possible.
  • Just like firemen working with the community to reduce fires, leaders of problem solving groups must engage AND help prevent the next one. Like Smokey said, “Only you can prevent a forest fire.”
  • Make sure your team understands being the problem solver is a noble responsibility and one the team must have. While over time fixing other people’s issue can be wearisome, it is needed. Fires happen – putting them out fast is what makes a company successful.
  • If you are the leader of the team whose “house is on fire”, appreciate those helping. Some fires are accidents, many can be prevented. Work to make sure your house is not always on fire.

I hate the office sign that says “poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine”. In a healthy organization, if you are part of the team and a problem solver – urgency is your responsibility. Work to reduce last minute issues – but don’t let your house burn down in the process.

Be intentional

How do you hold yourself accountable?

How does one hold someone accountable while simultaneously coaching and mentoring? We say leaders should have “behavior correcting discussions” in private, so how does the team know these discussions are happening? What exactly do people mean when they say “People aren’t being held accountable.” What are they looking for to know someone is being held accountable?

Like you, I’ve also had to struggle with these questions. One day I got tired of asking them and instead decided to ask a much harder and way more personal question. Asking it set everything I did on its proverbial edge.

The radical question?

How do I hold myself accountable?

What is it that you do to hold yourself accountable to your own actions? Do your words equal your actions? Now its personal and may be a tad uncomfortable. However, if we hold ourselves accountable – then others shouldn’t have to.

Here are a few things I try to consistently do in order to hold myself accountable to the words I speak:

Note It

  • When I say I am going to do something, I make a note and make sure I do it.

Think before speaking

  • I try think before I speak. Realizing that I own the words coming out of my mouth, I mentally make a point to know what I am saying.

Self-Assess often

  • Like those smiley face charts in the doctor’s office about the “pain”, I regularly self-assess to ensure I am doing what I am saying. I want my actions and words to align.

Apologize as needed

  • When I am wrong or when I don’t deliver my commitment (no matter how small), or when I fail to do what I am supposed to do I let the other person know it was me. I own my actions whether or not the other person owns theirs.

Surround myself with good people

  • I have accountability partners who have full permission to help me hold myself accountable. If you do not have folks who you have vetted and given the authority to speak truth into your view – you will always be the smartest person in the room, right up until you aren’t. Even the kings of old had court jesters who were able to offer insight.

Aim way high

  • I ask more of myself than I do of others. I know I am not perfect and thus I can only hold others accountable with the lens of humility through my imperfection. We’d all do well to remember that.

Mean what you say, say what you mean

  • My yes is yes and my no is no. It’s simplicity at its finest. Getting to simple is very hard. Simple doesn’t mean easy nor does it mean simplistic. It means intentional.

Look up, look down, look around

  • I regularly assess what I believe I am accountable for such as; actions, motives, or deliverables… Internalizing exactly what I am accountable for ensures my daily words and deeds have an opportunity to align.

In summary, I’m reminded of the movie Top Gun. In it, there was a scene where Maverick’s (Tom Cruise) CO said, “Son, your ego is writing checks your body can’t cash.” The same can be said about one’s personal accountability to their words and actions. Don’t let either your words or your actions get ahead of your ability to deliver. Keep enough in your personal accountability account to pay your own way.

Be intentional

Finding your circle’s touch points


Feeling blue?

When an organization undertakes a “redo”, finding your spot in the new organization is similar to starting a new job. You learn what your tasks are to create the outputs you are accountable for. You soon find the circle (some would argue “circus”) that defines your day, your goals and your contribution to the organization.

Eventually, you learn how your circle affects other circles and those circles touch other circles, and so on. You also learn you’ll have to overlap with some people or teams to ensure everything that needs to be done gets done. For example, someone in your organization is formally responsible for continuous improvement but that doesn’t mean everyone else is absolved of responsibility for driving continuous improvement. Your circle overlaps with the continuous improvement person’s because everyone is responsible for continuous improvement.

If you only do your own “circle” and not take into account how it interacts and overlaps with your surrounding “circles” means:

  1. Some things will not get done. It is inevitable. Throwing “it” over the wall isn’t the same as overlapping. All it means is your desk is clean but your co-worker is cleaning up your mess. You’re better than that. “Know before you throw.”
  2. The organization becomes weaker. A chain is a series of interlinked circles. Unlinking them means your organization will have much weaker pulling power the next time you run into a “tree-stump of a problem”
  3. There will be a communication blackout. Like a brownout that runs through a city, some blocks will have lights while other neighborhoods will be plunged into darkness. Instead, why not maintain your circles and make sure there aren’t any gaps in them? Interaction promotes understanding. It ensures you know why your customer needs something, not just what they need.

Overlap is a catalyst to change. It creates an environment to share. It invites people to be curious and ask questions that could get you thinking about something you have never thought about. It promotes continuous improvement.

If you find yourself saying “that’s not my job”, ask yourself if you are leaving a gap.  When establishing roles in a new organizational structure, it may not be your job, however if you see a hole it is your responsibility to the team to find a way to fill it.

Be intentional,