Inclusion: Change the Interaction to Improve the Process

May 6, 2013
We hold the belief that the best way to succeed is by making problems visible and solving them together through collaboration.

Imagine an environment where every meeting and every interaction create value for the organization. How much would that improve performance? How much would it reduce waste and rework? And why aren’t more organizations striving to attain this objective?

Organizations can only be as effective as the people who work there -- and the interactions between them. Many work processes depend on the ability of individuals, teams, and groups to interact effectively, bringing their best thinking and their unique perspectives to make problems visible, solve them faster, and create better solutions. It makes sense, therefore, that any organization committed to higher performance would seek to enhance human interactions. Yet very few actually do.

There is a framework for making this happen -- and it has consistently generated performance improvements in Fortune 50 companies.

The Human Dimension of Process Improvement

Many work activities -- kaizen events, tier and shift-change meetings, brainstorming sessions, staff meetings, ad hoc teams, and others -- require a high degree of participation from every individual if they are to make problems visible and identify the best solutions. Participation, however, may not be forthcoming if team members believe their input will not be heard and used. Many organizations have a history of not soliciting input or, if it issolicited, not communicating back to people why a decision was made or how their input was used. This sense of organizational indifference sparks widespread cynicism. Why add your input when it never seems to make a difference?

Moreover, people may carry a great deal of fear about contributing their thinking: fear of retaliation for raising certain issues, fear of “being volunteered” to solve the issues they raise, fear of being labeled as a “troublemaker” for raising concerns, fear of contradicting supervisors, fear of slowing down processes. This fear prevents people from speaking up.

In order to change these dynamics, people need to know that their perspectives are wanted and will be heard. They require a safe space in which to raise issues or concerns and make problems visible without fear of negative consequences. All of these conditions thrive in an environment of inclusion: inclusion seen not in the traditional way, as a separate program or a “nice thing to do,” but as the very foundation for everything the organization does -- how it engages people, conducts meetings, makes decisions, solves problems, and even develops strategy.

How Inclusion Creates Process Improvement

This approach to inclusion as a “how” to effectively engage others begins with a fundamental shift from judging to joining. In joining mode, we operate from a stance of openness and support, rather than (as in the case of a judging mode) caution and defensiveness. The goal is to engage with and learn from people. We hold the belief that the best way to succeed is by making problems visible and solving them together through collaboration. We begin with the assumption that we are going to connect -- that we have something to offer to others, and vice versa. The joining mode, in short, focuses on WE.

The joining mode also opens the door for -- and motivates people to use -- inclusive behaviors, such as leaning into discomfort. (A full list of 12 Inclusive Behaviors is available here.) These inclusive behaviors are essential in two respects. First, their widespread use in meetings makes individuals feel safe enough to speak up and make problems visible. Fuller participation in raising and solving problems -- whether in tiers, kaizens, or staff meetings -- enables the team to benefit from everyone’s best thinking.

Second, these behaviors provide a common language to lend clarity to interactions. When people use phrases that everyone in the team or organization knows -- like leaning into discomfort or listening as an ally -- each understands the other’s meaning. This reduces misunderstandings and the “rework” (additional emails or meetings, undoing unnecessary actions, etc.) that arises from them.

Consider the impact of inclusive behaviors on, for example, a kaizen event. The deliberate step of asking who else needs to be involved to understand the full situation can reveal people whose input is vital but who might not be considered at first glance. Without paying attention to that inclusive behavior, the team may miss a perspective without which they cannot address the process improvement in the most efficient way. Similarly, it is possible to include all the relevant people and fall short of the kaizen goals because people are afraid to speak up. In this case, creating a sense of safety will enhance their ability to share their points of view, leading to the 360-degree vision so necessary for optimizing the outcome.

As implied in the preceding paragraph, inclusion also encompasses having the right people doing the right work at the right time. As they adopt and internalize inclusive behaviors, people in the organization begin to seek out the “right” (relevant) people -- people who can bring a perspective from their experience -- as opposed to the limited number of “go to” people who, in most organizations, are asked to solve every problem and make every decision. As more people are included in more interactions, as they see their thoughts acted on (or at least understand how their input impacted the final decision), trust builds, leading to greater collaboration, accelerated knowledge transfer, and faster solutions. Most important, including people from every perspective leads to a 360-degree vision of the situation, resulting in more informed solutions and decisions.

Enhanced Interactions in Real Life

What does this look like in actual organizations? Following are a few examples of the impact of inclusion:

  • A leading plant in one organization held a series of kaizen events with only limited success. As it turned out, they had included some of the right people (e.g., subject matter experts) but not all: the shop floor operators—who lived with the process in question daily -- had not been asked to take part. When operators joined the kaizen team and were invited to share their perspectives, the team gained a 360-degree vision of the issue, which led to rapid identification and resolution of the root cause and clear process improvements. 
  • At one leadership team meeting, a team member using the inclusive behaviors decided she would  lean into discomfort by asserting that a proposed process with widespread support added no value -- and, indeed, would be a drain on resources. After bringing others into the conversation and asking their views, she offered a suggestion for moving forward and invited people to consider it. Between her original objection and the ideas from the rest of the team, the meeting resulted in a substantial improvement on the original proposal. 
  • A tier meeting made striking improvements in its processes by including people from operations and functional groups and having them jointly assess the work improvement opportunities and challenges of the day.  As a result of these assessments, team members created electronic versions of metrics, exhibiting their observations to better highlight emerging issues and next improvement steps.
  • The absence of key people in a critical kaizen led the team leader to postpone the meeting—avoiding the waste of participants’ time and ensuring that, when the meeting did occur, all essential perspectives were represented. In aggregate, this postponement saved seven hours of work time, and the subsequent meeting, held at a later date with full attendance, yielded quick results.
  • Including technicians in key meetings -- as well as a commitment to enhanced communication and listening -- enabled one area to boost its Right First Time record from 65% to over 80%.
  • In their weekly staff meeting, a team of supervisors regularly skipped over a serious but delicate issue. After they had worked on inclusive behaviors for a time, one of the supervisors decided to bring the issue to the fore. Once he modeled leaning into discomfort in this way, his colleagues felt safe enough to follow, and together they worked out an effective solution.

Even the world’s best processes will not work unless the people operating them are fully involved and feel safe to contribute. This makes inclusion an essential foundation for higher performance—enhancing interactions to enhance results.

As executive vice president and CEO (respectively) for The Kaleel Jamison Consulting Group, Inc., Judith H. Katz and Frederick A. Miller have created numerous breakthrough concepts in organization development, including Inclusion as the HOW® as a foundational mindset for higher operational performance.  Their latest book is Opening Doors to Teamwork and Collaboration: 4 Keys that Change EVERYTHING (forthcoming May 2013).

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