The effectiveness of any organization hinges on every employee taking responsibility for constant improvements to products, services, and processes. Improvements can reduce errors or waste, add value or safety, or resolve issues that slow down a process or make it unpleasant for users.
Sometimes companies will engage in major improvement projects, but a continuous improvement mindset means that a professional is always looking for even very tiny opportunities improvement—and acting on those opportunities. A professional is always looking for ways to improve, even when things are going well.
Once you think about it, the word improvement doesn’t even make sense without some place to start. An important part of the continuous improvement mindset involves paying attention to how well things are going in the first place. Businesses use international quality standards such as ISO (International Organization for Standardization) or Six Sigma in order to coordinate across an entire supply chain, but the underlying principle is that the quality of every product, process, or service can be defined and measured.
- Pay attention to outcomes. Quality can always be measured, but not always with a scale or micrometer. Get in the habit of comparing results against something, even if it’s a subjective measure like the results of a previous attempt, your own or a customer’s expectations, or another person’s performance.
- Set standards. Consistent outcomes at a certain level of quality becomes a standard of performance. Thing in terms of meeting the average, or even raising the bar just a little every time, and avoid letting performance slip into a downward spiral.
- Identify components. Every process involves steps, subtasks, and input. It’s not enough to decide to bake better cookies without taking a look at the process and quality standards for each of the steps (added all the ingredients?), subtasks (cream the shorting properly?) and inputs (used fresh nuts?).
Because the continuous improvement management philosophy started in Japan, many refer to process improvement as kaizen, a Japanese word for “good change.” The idea is to make little changes, measure the results, and adjust procedures or processes to maintain good outcomes—and then move on to the next opportunity. In kaizen, any problem becomes an opportunity to improve.
Many companies have adopted some kind of process improvement system, and these common tools can be used to look at any aspect of your job or life
PDCA Cycle. This is a checklist of steps to take: Plan, Do, Check, Act. Once an opportunity is identified, use a systematic approach to plan a change, do the change, check to see whether the change made any difference, and then, if it did, act to make the change permanent.
5 Whys. A favorite of small children, the technique reminds you to dig deeper to fine the root cause of a problem. Don’t plan to change the thing that caused a problem; instead, ask what caused that thing to happen. Keep going to five levels of why, and you’ll be closer to the real source of trouble.
5 S Organization. Sometimes, there is no obvious place to start, but five things will always make a workspace better organized. The Japanese words all start with S (seiri, seiton, seiso, seiketsu, shitsuke), but the English translations don’t (tidiness, orderliness, cleanliness, standardization, discipline). So, many will use these words as a mnemonic: sort, set in order, shine, standardize and sustain.
One important process includes a professional’s own thinking, personal behavior, and competencies. A continuous improvement mindset is a personal growth mindset. Flaws and failures become opportunities to improve. Unknowns and new situations present opportunities to grow. Everything about your life, career, or situation can be improved. Small steps matter.
Human processes can be difficult to improve because we structure ourselves with habit, a notoriously strong psychological glue. Simply identifying something to change won’t result in any improvement. Success increases with each step that harnesses the equally powerful psychology of social connections:
Continuous improvement involves getting and using good quality information about how well processes are working. Even in manufacturing, where quality can be measured in terms of product defects, an equally important source involves the user—the customer, coworker, or supervisor who uses the product or the output of a process.
Professionals in any industry are expected to pay attention to feedback. A formal program to listen to the “voice of the customer” or regularly survey clients might be in place. The company might hire specialists to monitor and respond to social media comments. In other companies, there is an informal but equally important obligation for all employees to report all comments and perceptions, even those heard from family or friends during social conversations.
The personal growth mindset requires attention to feedback on a personal level as well. Some research has shown that millennials are the most feedback-ready generation of workers (Schawbel, 2012), and there are some steps to actually using that feedback in a professional way.
The first step in using feedback involves recognizing that a message offers relevant information.
• Feedback processes can be formal or informal. Formal feedback is easy to see: grades, job appraisals, or rejection letters for scholarship applications. Informal or implicit feedback is easier to miss: veiled comments, sarcasm, jokes, or non-verbal reactions might all be conveying information. Pay attention!
• All communication is feedback. A wrong answer from your colleague provides feedback that your email wasn’t clear or complete. A boss’s off-topic explanation might give feedback about incorrect assumptions on your part. His sudden halt in conversation might be the mentor’s way to give feedback on your inappropriate comment. Pay attention!
You can ask for feedback, and you can ask whether you have correctly interpreted an informal or implicit message correctly. With that question comes responsibility.
• If you get feedback, you must act on it. When the boss corrects your behavior for the second or third time, she has already decided you are untrainable. Take all feedback seriously!
• Say thank you. Recognize the care, effort, and expertise involved in coaching a younger colleague. Giving feedback requires that someone makes a commitment to your success. Never take that for granted!
Continuous improvement is not about appreciating a thank you or acknowledging a score. Useful feedback provides performance information relative to a standard.
• Determine the target behavior. Even if you get positive feedback, make sure you know what specific behavior or characteristic was excellent. A vague, “thanks for a job well done” doesn’t give useful feedback about the well-done details of the job. Ask!
• Determine the standard. Imagine getting a quiz score without knowing how many points were possible. Useful standards are not always external. You might judge your score against your score on the last quiz, regardless of the class average. You might need to locate a few examples and ask the boss to say which is best. Whatever it takes, figure out what you should be trying to accomplish.
A good attitude about feedback doesn’t create actual improvement. A continuous improvement mindset includes acting on the information in a productive way.
• Locate the gap. This might be the hardest step of all. If you can’t tell the difference between your own performance and the standard, then you can’t cross that gap. Ask for help!
• Learn to do the work. Once you know what needs to happen, it becomes your responsibility to take the class, practice the skill, and bring yourself up to speed.
• Practice. Try the new skills a few times and double-check your work. Pay attention to that informal feedback! A coach or mentor can offer real-time, explicit feedback on your performance.
• Request reassessment. Especially with certifications or appraisals, reassessment might be required. Even with informal feedback, a systematic survey of reactions will provide valuable information.
When you’ve asked for the feedback, a constructive attempt to improve should be easy. Sometimes, negative feedback comes at you suddenly, and using the feedback can take a couple of extra steps.
• Avoid a defensive response. The natural response to criticism puts up a barrier: give a REASON for your behavior, CRITICIZE the other person, DENY the behavior or interpretation, just stay quiet and WAIT to get even, or even SELL OUT your own values or ideas. All of these are natural, but they reject the feedback for what it is: useful information about how others perceive you.
• Respond non-defensively. First, take a deep breath. Then, remember that any criticism includes useful information. CLARIFY the details or perceptions of the critic. ASK for a definition or clarification of the desired behavior. ACKNOWLEDGE the facts, along with the fact that someone has interpreted the facts differently. Start a conversation.
• Don’t roll over. Apologizing and promising never to do something again fails to use feedback effectively—especially if you don’t mean it. If you honestly believe you did a sensible, smart thing, say so! Don’t take the blame if it isn’t yours. Don’t assume you are ignorant, wrong, or bad. Don’t be too scared to respond productively. If you made a sensible choice, be ready to explain why.