How to Start a Business Improvement Journey

Recently I have written about many aspects that are critical to start your journey focused on business improvement.  Topics shared have focused on leadership, setting the direction, staff engagement and creating a positive work culture.

These are critical elements to begin what I would call a business improvement journey. This week’s blog is about providing an overview of all of these elements into a logical sequence. 

First a quick reminder, the move towards business improvement is all about a change in mindset. It is also a change process.  You may cringe at the thought, change may have a positive or a negative effect based on past experiences, but let’s call it what it is - change.

For business change to be successful you need to provide the team with a bunch of information, you need to be ready to fail (a lot) during the process and you need to empower your team as much as possible. If you try to do everything yourself, it won’t work - period.

Create the Vision
You need to start by creating a vision for future success. This is all about giving everyone a clear expectation of what is expected and what the goal is.  It doesn’t always have to be written formally, nor does it have to be a 16 page document, so don’t panic if it isn’t perfect.  What is critical is that it cannot have any ambiguity.  There are many examples of this around the workplace - Zero Harm is a great example.  From a health and safety perspective, there is no confusion is the ultimate goal.  We want to have zero workplace injuries. BP had “No Dry Holes” as it’s strategic goal.  This was in response to oil exploration and the previously acceptable 1 in 5 strike rate.  

Both of these examples have one common bond - very clear and no wiggle room for debate.   Everyone understood what the goal was. This is compared to nicely written vision and mission statements.  Personally I am not a fan of these as I have seen very few (if at all) that make an impact.  They can be very ambiguous in how they could or would be measured.  In the case of BP, the strategic goal (no dry holes) became a motto and created a high level of collaboration across teams to achieve it. There were massive learning opportunities if they ever did hit a dry well - knowing failures would happen, but taking the time to understand why and get better.  Despite all of that, the goal was always abundantly clear - No dry holes.

Leadership Driven
Then the role of leadership kicks in - find the positive stories, encourage teams to learn and collaborate.  It is hard and you may have to roll up the sleeves and facilitate the first few encounters, role model what you expect of the team.  Setting the right culture is critical. Give them specific goals to start the first few steps.  I often give teams a specific goal for the number of improvements I want to see when I return back to site.  It might be 1 improvement per person per week.  At this stage it is more about building the habit and momentum as it is about immediate impact on the business performance.

Look for the Small Wins
Break the goal down into more achievable goals, ones that will provide quick feedback - the “quick wins”. Bring in the role of the Gemba walk - get out there as a leader and find the highlights, remove any barriers - enable / empower your team.

Occasionally you will need to show the team what you are on about.  This might be a visit to another business to see examples of excellence.  I demonstrate this during my Lean Lego Workshop where teams experience the journey from chaos to control.  They get to feel and understand first hand what business improvement can look like.  Show them that it is possible, show them that it is possible. 

Build Daily Habits
From there it is about guiding the team along the journey.  Once the momentum and the mindset is heading in the right direction, support them towards the original direction.  Be prepared to make quick decisions to remove barriers, build in quality and performance metrics.  Helping spread the word, the books Good to Great and Switch use different terminology but ultimately it is about building on the positives and not slowing for the late adopters.  Build on the success, people will either be on board or not.  Human behaviour is fascinating, it is about FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). Success is contagious, the behaviour to achieve success is contagious.  If people keep talking, visiting or celebrating success, others tend to follow.

As mentioned in previous blogs, this isn’t easy otherwise everyone would have done it.  In a New Zealand context, we have had the mindset, the focus on business growth.  All that is needed is hard work and a bit of grit.  The 14 hour work day was a badge of honour.  This is not about that but about creating a mindset across the leadership team and then through your business - a mindset of improvement, becoming a better place to work every day.

Be prepared and ready as a leadership team to encourage new ways of doing things, celebrate failure and learning. The steps are not that complicated.  Set the direction as a leadership team.  Don’t make it complicated nor ambiguous.  You may have to get involved at the beginning to start the ball rolling, give the team some specific actions you are after.  Develop your people as the improvements take place, support the growth mindset.  Become the coach and advisor, break down the big vision.

I use a simple process for this, with the first steps mostly completed via Lego Serious Play.

The first question is based around the big vision - “If you woke up tomorrow and everything was perfect, this was the best example you could imagine - what is happening, who is doing what and how?  Once that has been described, I break it down into achievable chunks - if that was in two years time, what needs to happen in 12 months? Then six months, 3 months, one month, next week?

Immediately team members will understand how the actions and tasks they are planning tomorrow is setting them up for success long term. 

Make the whole process visible - yes I do mean physically put it up on the wall, write actions down and put names and due dates next to them.  Make people accountable, have stand up meetings around the wall at least weekly, if not daily.  Reset your work schedule to have the right conversations.  Don’t take your foot off the pedal, momentum is your friend in this whole process.  

Keep going through this process, press repeat.


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