Crisis and CI
As Covid-19 pandemic pushes the global economy into a recession of historic proportions, we are observing a remarkable phenomenon. Companies that have a robust culture of ‘continuous improvement’ are doing significantly better than their competition.
I am talking about companies where a lean and agile management system is just the way they work, rather than a standalone tool for reducing waste or solving immediate failures. These companies are much quicker in adapting to change and there is a simple reason for that: they have a more robust defense mechanism that effectively acts like a vaccine against disruption.
The traditional company approach
Consider a traditional company’s improvement approach, where essentially, problem solving is a top-down exercise whereby the frontline and middle managers highlight problems as they encounter them and the top management endeavors to come up with solutions to address those problems.
This is likely to be your own company and as you probably already have experienced, there is often a significant disconnection between the actual issue and the solution put in place, since the problem solvers (senior managers and dedicated change project teams, let’s call them black belts for ease) did not personally experience the actual issue or are overburdened by the volume of change that is needed
To make the matter worse, very soon the middle management learns that there is intense competition as to which problems are allocated precious change resources. So, they have no choice but to aggrandize their issues to ensure resources are received. What ensues is political game playing in prioritisation of change projects
The CI company approach
In a CI company, however, the relationship is reverse. It is not the top management’s job to commonly offer solutions and implement changes, rather it is to clearly communicate the general direction and intentions of the firm and enable middle management and frontline staff to resolve any issues they encounter.
So the solutions don’t come from the top, the performance challenges do! The countermeasures are identified and applied by the frontline teams and their line management. This of course, needs a deep conviction that the ‘doers’ know the capability of existing standard work and the problems best and they are better placed to create the right countermeasures.
It takes investing in people’s problem solving capabilities and allowing them regular time and resources to resolve the issues. But, arguably more importantly, it needs giving frontline and middle management ‘the license to experiment’ which in turn becomes an important cultural currency for the organization to absorb change and to constantly be able to adapt to changing environment
It also needs an appetite in leadership to encourage and support many small improvements that add up to big changes but individually are rapid and low risk, rather than a prevailing stereotype where we must have the one big save or compelling project that is high risk.
Importantly, it means changing leadership habits at all levels of the organisation. Habits lead to behaviours and the culture in turn is the collection of those behaviours. Leaders with those changed habits are seen to show a constancy of direction for their teams, they encourage and coach an incremental mindset where small change is valued and failure, normally of low risk, is seen to be a chance to learn and improve.
Meeting the challenge: a case study
It is in the face of adversity and in tough times such as these that CI companies truly shine. I was talking to a director at a leading Financial Services organisation recently. She was telling me how their management system of continuous improvement was helping to save the day. As a result of Covid-19 this company was one of the first in the world to shift to remote working and sometimes entire buildings had to be evacuated and whole work teams connected from home.
Not only did they have robust plans in place to deal with the situation, but also their CI management system, which included robust visual management boards, cascaded KPI’s and simple but regular problem solving huddles helped everyone remain focused on what mattered most to the customer.
In fact, to work remotely they nearly did not need to change anything, as far as their management system was concerned. Years of investing in and trusting people, meant that the “doers” knew exactly what needed to be done and that they were adapting to the customers rapidly changing needs at a great pace.
The frontline analysts and customer facing agents did not need to wait for the top to first understand the change and then to design the right recipe for the customer. It was the frontline’s job to adapt and address the change. The top had to adapt too. It was important to protect and enable the middle and the frontline by supporting team management and problem solving. To get close to their ‘Gemba’ and ensure the customers and the frontline are cared for. The idea of going to the Gemba or workplace was not new to this company, rather part and parcel of their culture of CI.
Today it is encumbered on middle and senior management, more than it has ever been, to rid themselves and their companies of the culture of command and control, and to adopt a culture of CI. The keyword in command and control is control. Senior executives often think they are not doing command and control because they are not commanding in an autocratic fashion, which is often true. But the part that we need to let go of, is the control part.
This may be the biggest lesson Coronavirus has to teach us yet. To let go and to be prepared to live with our vulnerability and to embrace change as the only constant. This is going to be the new normal, and traditional companies that do not adapt to this new way will fade away quickly.
Finally, it is normal for us and for our colleagues to be feeling isolated, anxious and even confused. Resilience will only come if we face our inner anxieties. Remember this is the very time to resort to robust coaching and to use evidence-based science in coping with uncertainty and anxiety. Coaching is an essential element in creating a culture of CI. We cannot issue an edict and expect company’s culture to change overnight. Creating the right habits and behaviours often takes practice and whilst there are no shortcuts, good coaching will engender good habits quicker than we think. .
I will be addressing the issue of coaching through Covid-19, using the newly emerging scientific field of positive psychology, in a series of open webinars starting in few days and focused on supporting you build more resilience for yourself as well as for your company – see Coaching through Disruption (Part I) and Coaching through Disruption (Part II). If this is prompting some reflections on your own business condition and you were wondering how you get started, I would be pleased to hear about your own story and the unique issues you might be facing.