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Continuous Improvement Requires Servant Leadership

Continuous Improvement is a service program and should be dedicated to elevating the minds and talents of everyone within the organization.

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.

Supplying A Need

The next defintion is “a system supplying a need.” The organization needs a robust system to generate ideas, projects and to sustain improvements. But it should also be designed to contribute to employee learning.This can be done very creatively through the design of the kaizen program.  

Make no mistake. There is an absolute need for individuals to be a part of something big, to become intertwined in the day-to-day tasks as well as take part in daily improvements. This is not only a need of the employee to feel empowered and appreciated but also a real need for management. The minds on the floor are valuable, priceless even.

A robust continuous improvement training program, a kaizen suggestion system along with recognition programs and succession planning are vital in continuous improvement culture.  

There is also a need for a continuous improvement team. This team is not only in charge of recurrent training, engaging and keeping interest high, but it also is reponsible for “performing routine maintenance” to the system design.

Empoloyees need recurrent teaching. It’s essential for them to hear the continuous improvement message frequently. That said, they do not just need to “hear” it, they need to see it as well.

Most would not hesitate to implement a torque audit to ensure tooling is reaching its maximum potential or a PM program to prevent a machine from breaking down. Likewise a “PM program” must be in place for employess so they do not “break down” or become complacent in their jobs.

In a continuous improvement-driven organization, the last thing wanted is employees just coming in to do the same old grind.

Continuous Improvement empowers the employee by providing opportunity. It makes training, support and systems available to the employee for job enlargement. It creates excitement and cultivates passion. It transforms an employee’s responsibility from performing a process to sustaining and improving it, from coming in and doing the bare minimum to going above and beyond.

Continuous Improvement is a service program and should be dedicated to elevating the minds and talents of everyone within the organization. It should be dedicated to helping employees by supplying the knowledge to create and the freedom to implement.

There is not truly a continuous improvement culture until every employee, at every level, uses continuous improvement practices and would not think of doing their jobs any other way.

Any organization will make great strides if they shift their mentality to service. Serve the people, invest in the people. The company will grow as the minds grow.

Eric Bigelow is a continuous improvement expert located in Spirit Lake, Iowa. He is an advocate for dynamic employee engagement along with cultural succession programs to spread the continuous improvement philosophies. Join him on LinkedIn or email him at [email protected].

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