Leaders want their organizations to stay relevant, survive and thrive and solve important problems for their customers, the organization and work processes.
From large corporations such as Toyota and General Electric to small family-owned manufacturing companies, these leaders know that a problem-solving culture and a focus on people development is the way to achieve business results.
But what does a culture of continuous improvement really look like—one where people are engaged in and capable of problem-solving at all levels, every day?
If you’re like most leaders, there is likely a gap between where you are and where you need to be to create a culture of continuous improvement. Too often, leadership focuses on the business and process problems to solve and (target – actual outcome = problem). This is important, but if you are seeking to create a culture of continuous improvement, you must also focus on closing behavior gaps within the organization to improve the capacity to solve problems and support and coach others.
Closing Leadership GAPS
Regardless of the industry, size of company or location, I’ve found four consistent habits that effective leaders practice that foster greater engagement and problem-solving in their teams. This, in turn, results in more business problems solved and, ultimately, an organization where continuous improvement and innovation are the norm.
- Go See
- Study (and Reflect)
When leaders can close these leadership GAPS, they are more likely to enable a culture where business process gaps are closed each and every day:
1. Go See
The first gap involves identifying where leaders spend their time. One enabling action leaders can take to foster creative learning and engagement is to “go see,” also known as “go to gemba”—the “place work happens,” in Japanese. Instead, many leaders get caught in the habit of staying in their office, relying on reports delivered to them, or asking their people to come to them (be it in person or on a video call), rather than going out to see what is actually happening in the work and with their people.
As I highlighted in my book Learning to Lead, Leading to Learn, going to gemba differs from “management by walking around” because it is done with a two-fold purpose: first, to see with your own eyes to check on processes and learn what is actually happening, and second, to check in with the people doing the work, show that you care and provide support as needed.
I use these words intentionally – go see to check on processes and check in with people. When you can close this leadership gap to “Go see,” you increase your knowledge of what is happening in your organization and demonstrate that you care about your people and their successes, struggles and learning.
What do you think is the most ingrained habit that leaders, just like you, need to break to accelerate learning and engagement?
Your “telling habit.”
We are rewarded early in our careers for having “the answer” (or what we think is the answer), and we are often promoted for being excellent independent contributors or experts in our field. So, it’s no surprise that most of us develop the mistaken belief that to be a leader we must have all the answers all the time.
Leading with curiosity instead of making assumptions, and asking more questions instead of telling your ideas, might surprise you in how many more problems you and your teams solve.
But, beware, not all questions are created equal. In fact, if you are like nearly all of the leaders I’ve worked with, (and I’m a culprit of this too) many “questions” that you ask are not actually questions. They are instead your idea disguised as a question—your suggestion with a question mark on the end—and have the same impact as telling someone your “answer.”
When you break the telling habit, and instead lead with a habit of inquiry—of asking open-ended questions for which you don’t genuinely have “the answer”—you accelerate learning and problem-solving capabilities in your organization, which results in better processes, better outcomes and innovation for the future.
How often have you been asked a question and given no time to respond before the asker moves onto the next topic or just jumps in with an answer or explanation?
We hear this all the time: “Anyone have any questions? [no pause] Okay, let’s move on.”
In the haste to get things done, leaders get caught in the trap of fast action—of moving quickly and giving no time for someone to think of a response … or even another question.
Instead of rushing in to fill the space or move on with more “doing” ... Pause. Count to 10 silently. For most of us, sitting in silence and not taking action can be uncomfortable. It might feel like an eternity, but pausing gives space: for others to think, ask a question, contribute their ideas. It gives you space to really listen and hear when others share their thinking, questions, and feedback. You don’t know what you don’t know, and you cannot make lasting, actual change without knowing first what needs to be changed.
When I coach leaders to ask a question and then pause, most are surprised – first, by how challenging taking a pause is in practice, and second, by how much more engaged their people are and that better ideas on how to solve problems emerge.
There is a third, sometimes surprising benefit of pausing and getting accustomed to space in the “doing”. Pausing can be beneficial to resetting how you think and react. I call this taking an “intention pause” to reconnect with your purpose in that interaction, the impact you want to have and the actions you need to take to align with it. If you allow yourself the time to pause and really connect, you’re less likely to be reactive and respond out of pure instinct or emotion. Instead, you can be proactive and achieve greater impact.
This fourth habit is critical for improvement. Studying is the part of the PDSA “Plan-Do-Study-
Adjust” continuous improvement cycle that most people overlook. Studying, thinking, learning – through reflection – often feels unproductive. Wasted time. It’s as though we have to be actively “doing something” and “taking action” in order for us to make the most of our time. But this keeps us caught in the “plan-do-plan-do” trap, without the “study” or “adjust” part of the problem-solving cycle.
We have to move from a doing culture to a learning culture. And studying and reflection is where learning happens. It is only by learning and adjusting that we can continuously improve – a process of our own behavior.
Taking dedicated time to reflect can be more helpful in the long run than jumping into action to our great “solution” before we have even understood what problem we are really trying to solve.
Just as we have to learn to grow comfortable in silence, we must also challenge ourselves to find comfort in the discomfort of looking back and determining next steps rather than developing half-determined ideas or plans.
Reflection can help point you in the direction of improvement and assist in strengthening those bonds of leadership that you’re looking to develop. Studying how you react and how your fellow employees react will help you to determine smart steps forward that will aid in the improvement of your relationship.
Larry Culp, CEO of General Electric, told me onstage during our closing session “fireside chat” at the Association for Manufacturing Excellence conference in 2022 that these were the very same leadership gaps he has had to close in his own behaviors to create a culture of continuous improvement. He said that he’s had to “unlearn” everything he was taught in his MBA program to become a more effective executive—by going to see, asking more questions, pausing and listening and continuously learning and reflecting through success…and failure. And he sees lean and a continuous improvement mindset as the way for his organization to achieve its needed results.
Beginning to close your own leadership gaps—by going to see, asking better questions, pausing and studying—will accelerate you and your organization’s abilities to solve important organizational problems, and create a thriving continuous improvement culture where problem-solving, innovation and learning are the norm.
Katie Anderson is an internationally recognized leadership coach, consultant, speaker, and learning enthusiast best known for inspiring leaders to lead with intention to increase their impact. Katie is the author of bestselling book “Learning to Lead, Leading to Learn: Lessons from Toyota Leader Isao Yoshino on a Lifetime of Continuous Improvement” and regularly leads executive learning trips to Japan to learn about the origins of lean and kaizen. Katie's new podcast, Chain of Learning, debuts November 1.