In continuous improvement consulting, apathy is often my toughest competition. Helping people overcome the inertia of the status quo is a significant challenge. Many leaders desire agility and recent events have only increased this desire, but the path often requires more persistence and patience than the organization possesses. In the last 4.5 years of consulting I have been refining my continuous improvement model so that organizations can apply it to overcome the inertia of the status quo. In my upcoming newsletter articles, I will explain the components of this model and why they work. I hope you will gather a few ideas that you can then go and apply to your organization.
The inertia of the status quo is the greatest impediment to the agile organization. We’ve all heard the statements that are symptoms of the status quo disease:
“We have always done it this way.”
“Only Jerry knows how to book that type of order.”
“The system doesn’t allow us to perform that task.”
“We need to get the boss to sign off on most things.”
“That change might create XYZ problems.”
These statements are the enemy of the agile company. They are laden with the fear of change. The agile company has to adapt quickly and adopt new ways of thinking and working. These statements are conversation enders. They are obstacles to the changes we need to make to adapt to the constantly changing world. Each statement begs the question, “Why?” and too often we do not ask this question because:
“We are too busy!”
“We don’t have time to try and gain consensus around this issue.”
“Meetings and discussions are a waste of time!”
“What failure? That’s just how things work around here.”
“It’s simple, it was Bob’s fault.”
“People just need to have more common sense.”
“People just need to care more.”
“People just need to be more accountable.”
Continuous improvement is the medicine that remedies the status quo illness. In its simplest form, continuous improvement is the responsibility, governance, mindset, and motivation to continuously ask the question “What went wrong and why?” The question “Why?” is the ultimate challenge to the status quo. It is the conversation restarter:
“Why doesn’t anyone besides Jerry know how to perform this action?”
“Why can’t the system be designed to handle this request?”
“Why don’t we take the time to understand the cause of the incident?”
“Why is this activity important to the customer”? Or is it all important?
“Why did the process allow Bob to make the mistake?
These questions start us on the path to challenge the inertia of the status quo. These questions help us to see a better future and motivate us to engage in the changes that will improve results for our employees, customers, and owners. Asking “why?” throughout continuous improvement builds the change muscle that is needed to be truly agile. Agility is the ability to quickly recognize the need for change, collaborate and align on the change, and successfully implement the change.
This pandemic is only the latest example of external shocks we need to be prepared to manage through. The organizations that were agile going into this event will come out stronger, and those that were not may not make it through. As the rate of change in consumer expectation accelerates, agility will not be a choice but a table stake. This concerns all of us because agility is not something that can be purchased off the shelf. It must be built into every fiber of the organization. It must be nurtured over a long period. We must recognize when we stray away or when we get too comfortable.
Change is disruptive and difficult. It creates friction and opens us up to mistakes in a way that we end up avoiding the change. It is not intuitive to desire a constant state of change, but much the opposite! So, it is counterintuitive to say that those organizations that invite the greatest amount of change on a consistent, controlled basis produce the best results. Yet it is true, the strength created from practicing continuous change sustains us through chaotic times and reduces our risk aversion to new and innovative ideas. Think of an athlete that practices their sport as if it were game day. It is strenuous and hard. It opens them up to injury. Yet, it is well documented that athletes who practice this way perform better in the game than those who do not. Change is hard and when practiced regularly, change produces agile organizations and agile organizations produce amazing results.
Continuous improvement produces a deliberate, constantly changing, and improving the environment that makes an organization agile. Over the next several newsletters I will share how roles and responsibilities, team governance, workflow management, performance management, and process improvement along with the right mindsets and proper motivations provide a model for continuous improvement that will empower your organization to be agile.