Accountability for Continuous Improvement

Anchor of the big sea ship isolated on a white background

Last week a reader by the handle of CILean asked Gemba:

I have trouble with staff who appear generally supportive of improvement projects and agree with Senior Management on proposed actions but then fail to implement agreed changes and constantly come up with lame excuses. I don’t know whether they secretly don’t believe we can improve, although they have ample opportunity to speak candidly. Do I need more support from Senior Management or to be a little tougher with the ‘passive saboteurs’? It’s not just Lean that doesn’t get done, they don’t do work for Quality Management of Health and Safety either. If I need more support from my Senior Manager, how do I requests this without sounding like I’m blaming them for the failure of the project? Any suggestions greatly appreciated.

It’s hard to make suggestions without understanding a bit more about the organizational environment within which you are trying to do continuous improvement. Here are a few questions worth reflecting on:

    1. What is the highest level of management support you have for continuous improvement?
    2. How often do they voice their support for continuous improvement?
    3. How often do they go see or check on the continuous improvement activity they support?

The correct answers to these questions are 1) the higher the better, 2) the more often the better, and 3) at every opportunity. Anything less indicates that continuous improvement is not a top priority for senior management. Even if these are the answers you gave, it may be a question of either culture or policy of the organization – the middle layer creating an inertia on continuous improvement.
If you feel like you have strong support, management are vocal and visible in their support, and truly want the facts, they will probably want to hear that people are not giving adequate support to continuous improvement. However it may not be an issue with senior management, so here are a few further questions to ask before raising this issue:

  1. Do safety and quality come before schedule adherence and cost?
  2. Are responsibilities made clear and visible?
  3. What does it take to get fired at this company?

The “correct” answers to questions 4 and 5 are a bit tougher, more nuanced. In general we can say that from a cultural point of view, if safety and quality do not come first, you are fighting an uphill battle for continuous improvement. The management does not put people and the customer first, or incentives are skewed. Since much of successful lean management is simply about making and keeping agreements (we might call them standard), it is essential to make responsibilities clear and visible. Posting a kaizen newspaper is a great way to show who has agreed to do what by when, in terms of continuous improvement tasks.
The aim of question 6 is not to fire people who don’t do as you say. On the one hand it is a question of having clear agreements, policies and responsibilities, and being willing to what is fair to everyone by being true to these agreements – even when it means asking someone to leave the team. More importantly, the answer to the question of what it takes to get fired should be based on a shift from asking “why?” instead of “who?” There are reasons for resistance and uncooperative behaviors which need to be understood since some may be bad apples and unwilling to change while others may simply be doing what seems to be accepted, and willing to change once leadership sets a new standard of behavior.
If none of these are critical gaps for you then it may be wise to call out the few who are not supporting continuous improvement. There will always be some who are late adopters, anchor draggers or procrastinators. Tread carefully when following this advice CILean, as it sounds like your management is not strong on holding people accountable when it comes to continuous improvement. I know of many good people in continuous improvement positions who changed careers or companies because their effectiveness was limited by the leadership and management culture. “Change management is preferable to management change,” but if you can’t get either you might be better off to change careers.
Final question:

7. How much longer do you think a company with this style of management can continue to exist in this day and age?

3 Comments

  1. Mathew

    March 20, 2009 - 11:16 am

    I am living in an almost exactly same situation with ‘passive saboteurs’. What I have found that finally started helping (even though it wasn’t an easy path to walk was:
    1-force clarity of the action plan after every meeting. Attach people & dates next to each item.
    2-Regularly update everyone with progress reports that clearly show what has been done and who hasn’t gotten on top of their items. Sometimes I do this via email, in production environments I post on Visual Boards for everyone to see.
    If you have management that does support CI, they start questioning pretty quickly people who haven’t met their commitments.
    You need to be somewhat thick skinned because those the passive saboteurs will find reasons to whine about the public reports.
    While this approach is working for me, I also found a curious issue; There are some people who do have genuine problems, but were just uncomfortable saying it in the planning meetings. Since those problems were not taken into account, they are not in a position to deliver even if they wanted to. With them I am careful to be supportive and to make sure that I encourage them to present their concerns/feedback during future kaizen meetings

  2. John Santomer

    April 1, 2009 - 12:22 am

    Situation :
    1. Support is from the President and CEO.
    2. President’s support is voiced over only through a Middle Management high ranking officer.
    3. Continuous improvement is not at top priority – only Middle layer is creating inertia on continuous improvement.
    4. Safety and quality comes first before schedule adherence and cost.
    5. Responsibilities are made clear but are not visible because these were pre-determined only on several meetings and are charged over their main responsibiities.
    6. What does it take to get fired in this company? Politics at most and committing a heinous crime at the the worst…
    Is there any hope of raising accountability for continuous improvement under these situations? And you can say I am one those people who were not in the position to deliver anything even if I wanted to.

  3. Jon Miller

    April 12, 2009 - 6:19 pm

    Hi John,
    Your situation is definitely not hopeless. Items 1, 2, 4 and 6 seem to be in good order. It sounds like your organization could use a bit of policy deployment. The middle management needs to see that continuous improvement is not something extra but part and parcel of how they get their work done and meet their personal and company goals. Policy deployment (hoshin kanri) or even just a simple review of “why are we doing this?” for each improvement activity, showing which metric it improves, who benefits and who is accountable, should help.
    The most important thing is for the management to see that continuous improvement is the natural way of working, not a program. That probably needs to come down from the CEO, but you can certainly start in the middle by preaching, practicing and converting people one by one.