I was educated and trained that continuous improvement is a philosophy centered in service -- so much so, that if a process failed, you (as leadership) were to apologize to the employee and solicit feedback and ideas about how to make it sucessful.

It was taught that everyone was obligated to not only supply the employee with efficient, repeatable processes but also to encourage the employee in continuous improvement thinking.

The encouragement to get everyone on board with the continuous improvement philosophy was more important than quickly "kaizening" to save money. Saving money was important, but it also was understood that the time spent cultivating the culture would in the long run yield results by everyone instead of results by a few. My sensei would say, “Instead of 10 or 20 eyes on waste, we want 300 eyes on waste.” Wow. That makes sense.

Some organizations have lost sight of this and focused on immediate satisfaction through saving money quickly at the expense of the people and the culture.  If this is your organization, then I hope this article might reignite the fire of service.

Serve the people, invest in the people. The company will grow as the minds grow.

True continuous improvement requires a servant leader attitude and outlook to be successful within an organization. Continuous improvement (in its purest sense) actually demands that leadership support others in their development. Hence, rather than excersising power over the people, the power should be shared with the people by putting their development needs first.

Let’s look at the word service.

Service has multiple definitions. I am going to use three key ones.

  • The action of helping someone
  • A system supplying a need
  • Perform routine maintenance on (something)

We’ll start with “the action of helping someone.” The action of helping is to make it easier for someone to do something. It is essentially to provide one's services or resources to someone in need. In a continuous improvement sense it is to provide a person with not only the materials but also the time necessary to operate effectively.  

The act of helping someone is not just sending an expert to improve a process or removing an ergonomic risk from an operation via kaizen. It’s not just writing standard work for them or displaying work instructions visually.

All of those elements are good for the employee, yes. But it is just as important, just as vital, to send that expert out to train, influence and engage the individual. Helping most certainly means to improve the process, but equally it communicates the need to invest in the knowledge and experience level of the employee.  

In the continuous improvement realm it means to help every individual “see.” To help each individual understand, appreciate and value continuous improvement. This means to share knowledge, information and methods. Show them how to identify the issues and develop ideas to improve. It means allowing time for individuals to train and then to put that training into action through small groups and kaizen events.