The best indicator of successfully developing a continuous improvement culture is your ability to engage people. Because “engagement is all about participation,” according to communications consultant David Sibbet, it is critical that you create a way for people to consistently participate in improvement activities. Creating an annual kaizen event calendar and rotating people on and off improvement teams won’t cut it. You must design a process for individuals to embed change as part of their daily work.
What works best are employee-driven idea systems that focus on small ideas but cultivate them every day in a visual, public way. Not because the ideas themselves are earth-shattering, but because the ability to get them done quickly and demonstrate continued progress is key to motivating people to think big, take risks, and work together to create positive change.
Unfortunately, most leaders have a difficult time believing that thousands of small “unmeasurable ideas” will have any meaningful effect on key financial metrics. As a result, most idea systems quickly die on the vine as leaders create layers of bureaucracy to manage the ideas, and complex return on investment (ROI) criteria to rank each idea in the search of the illusive “game-changing suggestion.” However, when leaders set a clear objective and challenge teams to rapidly implement any idea important to accomplishing their goal, then the true power of creativity and collective energy can be released.
Take an example from the University of Washington. The Grants and Contracts Accounting Group is a 25-member team responsible for the setup, invoicing, reporting, and closing of more than $1.15 billion in annual research grants. When I started working with the team, complex grants could take upwards of 673 days to finalize the outstanding invoices, complete the reporting, and close out the grant in compliance with sponsor requirements. In addition, due to the 228-percent growth in research grants and budget cuts, a backlog of 5,478 grants had developed.
Faced with no new resources and the audacious challenge to eliminate the backlog and cut the time to close to 120 days, we engaged the team and installed a system of daily process improvement. Driven by the goal to identify and solve problems in real time, the team used workflow leveling, pacing, visual controls, and idea pads to capture every roadblock the team encountered. At the end of each day, problems were reviewed and analyzed, and improvements were made so the impact of the change could be viewed the next day. While some of the ideas took multiple days to investigate and implement, the vast majority of the ideas were small, seemingly insignificant changes that could be completed by the next day.
The result? At the end of eight months, the team had eliminated 82 percent of the backlog and increased the number of budgets closed per week by 733 percent. By using a simple daily process to identify and implement small ideas, the team has averaged 4.4 new ideas per person per month and implemented 78 percent of them. It has done this without running kaizen events and without the assistance of internal lean specialists. In fact, change is happening so rapidly that documenting the effect of the ideas has become the enviable problem the team is working to address (at the request of the University).
So why do thousands of small ideas beat a few big ideas every time? Here are a few of the unseen benefits of embracing a “smaller is better” approach to process improvement:
Motivation. Seeing progress is one of the single greatest sources of intrinsic motivation. By documenting and allowing people to see the ideas they have suggested and implemented, and how their ideas have contributed to the larger organizational goals, you give them a simple, consistent, and visual mechanism to see their progress.
Development. By documenting all the small ideas, you create “teachable moments” where you can use actual ideas suggested and implemented to teach others what constitutes good ideas as well as what making progress toward goals each day looks like.
Recognition. By making your idea system visual, it allows you to create a very public method of recognizing all the incremental improvements people are suggesting and implementing. As peer-to-peer recognition is one of the most powerful motivators, the visual element allows teams to celebrate one another and each member’s contribution to their team and the organization.
Sharing. Simple visual idea systems encourage frequent yokoten(knowledge sharing) as each idea is captured, discussed, implemented, and recognized. Unexpected benefits occur during this process as each team member is exposed to the ideas of others and challenged to find opportunities where improvements can be applied in other areas.
Creating an engaged culture isn’t about challenging people to identify and implement ideas that revolutionize the organization. As soon as leaders start thinking the key to change is big ideas, they create systems that seek to identify the best ideas and kill those which do not provide a sufficient ROI. Rather than engage teams, these systems serve as a filter to curb people’s creativity and puts blinders on their “improvement eyes.” More important, by conditioning people to filter their ideas, leaders limit the organization’s ability to tap into the motivational engine that lies within in every team member.
The key to creating a world-class idea system is spending less time asking the question, “Is this a good idea?” and more time building a system where progress is measured by the implementation of thousands of seemingly inconsequential ideas. Leaders’ primary mission is to create an environment that allows all team members to make progress every day and gives them a way to see the progress they are making. Only then will people fully engage and be motivated to change the organization, one idea at a time.
In the end, if you want teams to engage in change, be accountable for their actions, and take ownership of the outcomes, they need to feel good about themselves and the contribution they are making in the organization. Only when team members are clear about the objectives and able to confidently say, “I am better today than I was yesterday” will the organization begin to tap into their limitless ability to help make themselves, their team, and their process great.