Chalmers St – Consulting

The Integrity to Improve

This month I will continue to stress the importance of company culture to sustain improvement. Last month I shared the importance of accountability. This month I will talk about integrity. Now integrity is a big concept, possibly a bit too big for a simple continuous improvement discussion. There are many aspects of an individual’s character that are required to produce integrity. They are all important for the organization. For the purpose of this short article let’s focus on one small and crucial aspect of integrity; specifically, making clear promises and keeping clear promises. 


First, I would recommend reading a post I made on LinkedIn last year regarding this topic.


The point of the post was to recognize that there are forces working against integrity in the workplace. I know, right? You can’t believe it, but it’s true! When we think about promises, it is easier emotionally to simply not make them. There is no risk in letting someone down. This is a force that is working against making a promise; it is a force that works against integrity. Given that it is difficult to make a promise because we may fail to keep the promise, there is a tendency to allow others around us to do the same. If we don’t hold others accountable to a missed promise, then if we ever do the same they will likely return the favor by not holding us accountable. Scott Herbst calls this “a hidden conspiracy inside of the organization.” From a “sustaining the standard” perspective this is a race to the bottom. 


A promise is a decision. It is a decision to commit time and resources to a specific cause. This is a strong signal of commitment. Avoidance of promises is a lack of integrity and a lack of commitment to the function of the business. Organizations that are committed to a specific standard and promise to maintain a high standard will further maintain their continuous improvement.  


Let’s take a specific and well known example, the dreaded, failed 5S program. Companies start off with the best of intentions in their 5S programs. They throw out unused items, make space for things they need, label, organize, etc. Then what happens? Three months go by or maybe even a year, things change, new leadership arrives, standards become lax and the 5S program becomes a thing of the past. Why? The organization lacked integrity in their approach to the program. People promised to maintain monthly audits, but things got busy and they forgot. People promised to sweep and clean their work areas at the end of the day, but the boss stopped checking and so they decided this was no longer important. In fact, in our fictitious (and all too real) scenario it became easier for the boss to just ignore the uncleaned area than to bring it up and irritate their employees. And further, they too do not want to be held accountable for their own broken promises. If you don’t hold me to my promises and I don’t hold you to your promises there’s nothing to complain about. There is less friction in the organization. It’s just an easier, more relaxed environment to work in. It’s the race to the bottom. In this example, it’s the end of our 5S program.  


How do we fix this? Do humans just naturally lack integrity? I hope this is not true. It is a much bigger question and maybe someone in the audience here can recommend a book that can help us all understand human being’s natural inclinations. What I am completely sure of is that we all have the ability to act with integrity every day. So, let’s begin with ourselves for the solution. We need to act with integrity in all that we do every day. There will be people around us who don’t. Accept that and don’t use it as an excuse to lose your own integrity. Conversely, there will be other people who see you acting with integrity and do the same. It is a virtuous cycle rather than a race to the bottom. In practical terms:


  1. Think of a promise that you are avoiding making, possibly due to fear of failure. Just do it. Make the promise. 
  2. Think of a promise you are failing to keep. Fix the problem and keep your promise. 


It is simple to say, right? Of course, in a large and dynamic organization this is simply not enough. These behaviors need to be modeled from the top. I’ll go a step further and say that if you are in an organization where the leadership does not act with integrity, you are in the wrong organization and you should leave. If your leaders cannot make and keep promises, then it is unlikely that any sort of continuous improvement will be sustained. 


This point aside, let’s assume that your leadership is the kind that acts with integrity. As best as possible, your leaders do make and keep promises. In this case it is your job to make sure that this behavior is cascaded down throughout the organization. This is not more difficult than writing down your promises and then checking that you follow through. If the organization is supposed to do a daily production meeting, then there needs to be a document (ideally Leader Standard Work) that states this practice, including a daily check sheet to verify that it is maintained. If the organization has identified a list of actions required to improve a process or resolve some operational challenge, then there needs to be a document of the specific actions (ideally a project plan) with dates and owners that can be checked and verified on a frequent basis. In short, write the promise down and check on it. When we fail to keep a promise, when we fail to live up to what was written down, then talk about it as a team. Friction is okay. Actually, constructive friction is healthy. Owning up to a missed promise is part of integrity. The integrity to admit and work through missed promises is required to sustain continuous improvement. 


Integrity is a big part of sustaining continuous improvement. The practices are fairly simple. The organization that maintains these practices, believes in them, demonstrates them, and models them will survive the many changes that occur and threaten to create the downward spiral of broken promises and lowering standards. In short, it means that 10, 20 and 30 years from now the 5S program will be maintained. Frankly, the work environment is simply more successful and enjoyable for everyone to take part in.