One of the challenges in implementing a Continuous Improvement program is this: After employees go through training, how do they determine where to apply all of their new process improvement tools?
Even if your organization is culturally ready for process improvement, how often have you heard people say,
- “The process has worked that way for years” Or,
- “Why fix what isn’t broken?” Or,
- “That’s how we’ve always done it.”
Where Should Your Improvement Begin?
At times, it seems hard for employees to figure out where to apply Continuous Improvement. This struggle becomes obvious when a significant effort is made to get employees trained in Lean Six Sigma, and then momentum is lost when employees are stumped with, “Now where do I apply these new tools?”
Seeing opportunities is a different skill set than applying process improvement tools. John Shook nods to this concept in his book “Learning To See.” Even though the primary focus of Shook’s book is on Value Stream Mapping, the bigger concept is that before we can attack waste or improve processes, we must learn to see the problems and the waste. This can be one of the biggest obstacles for organizations: employees that do not see waste or see opportunity to apply tools.
Problem Solvers vs. Problem Seekers
When a Continuous Improvement program is implemented, usually the organization wants to grow and develop the employees’ ability to problem-solve. However, before organizations can have problem-solvers, they need problem-seekers. How do you ignite problem-seekers? It can start with encouraging the inquisitive mind to ask why. Inherent in process improvement is asking why.
The inquisitive mind is the motivational fuel that feeds process improvement. As an example, new hires often ask the most profound questions related to processes. Questions like…
- “Why do we do it this way?”
- “Why are there so many steps?”
- “This sure seems complicated, isn’t there a better way?”
Eventually a new employee stops asking why and proceeds to follow the established process. Why do new employees stop asking why? Is it because he/she did not feel empowered to make a change? Is it because current workers defended the process even though they agree that the process is a poor one?
It’s an interesting question to ponder… why do we stop asking why? Unfortunately, many of us have years of training in not asking why!
Children trying to figure out the world, between the ages of 2 and 5 ask 40,000 questions. Some questions can be really funny, odd or profound. But after about 20,000 questions, the patience level of those that answer the questions starts to diminish.
Have you heard a parent say, “because I said so” after a few thousand rounds of asking why? Obviously children sense their parent’s building frustration.
Is it natural for kids to stop asking why? Or, do they stop asking why because they’ve learned that asking why is annoying?
If we ask too many questions at work is that also viewed as annoying? Do managers become annoyed if workers ask why? Unfortunately, there are disengaged employees at work and one reason is that the inquisitive mind is squashed versus promoted.
Ignite Curiosity by Re-Engaging Employees
Process improvement requires that employees re-engage with curiosity. This can be a hard thing to overcome after learning over long stretches of time that asking why is not a desired behavior.
How can organizations re-engage the inquisitive minds of employees?
Create the Right Environment
- First, create a safe and blame-free environment. Innovative environments allow for acceptable levels of risk. Creativity and outside-the-box thinking is rewarded. Blame-free environments mean that employees can come together to solve a process issue without worry of blame for the poor process design. Blame-free organizations focus more on process issues and less on blaming the people that work in the process.
- Secondly, re-engage employees by inserting fun and creating an environment of mutual respect. As much as naysayers say that fun is a waste of time, it isn’t. Many organizations have a high percentage of dis-engaged employees in the workforce. Smart organizations know that the cost of employee dis-engagement. Dis-engaged employees are costly. Re-engaging employees by creating a workplace that is enjoyable is very important not just for the health of the organization, but for the balance sheet too.
- Lastly, one of the primary goals of a Lean Leader is to build problem-solvers. In order to build inquisitive minds, leaders must stop telling and do more asking. Leaders shouldn’t have all the answers anymore. Instead, leaders can help others through discovery by using the Socratic method of asking questions and collective collaboration in solving problems.