An organization I visited recently surprised me. They are on a long-running and successful continuous improvement journey. They do many things right. They recognize where they have gaps and are open to outside help. And yet they have chosen to not make certain types of problems openly visible. When leaders do not insist on making the status of processes, adherence to standards, or overall performance visible, that in effect signals to people, “This area closed to improvement.”
The areas this organization signaled as being closed to improvement were ones they would have said they hoped to improve, if asked. In each case, they explained how making these metrics visible had either caused embarrassment or an inappropriate level of focus on them. They had overcorrected.
Deciding to not set standards, to not make the status of performance visible or to discuss problems open all reflect on an organization’s culture. People tend to perform better over the long-term in environments that are respectful, open, free of fear, that value accountability for pursuing the causes of problems rather than just assigning blame or jumping to solutions. Sometimes the inclination not to hurt people’s feelings, to avoid conflict or discord in an organization, can result in a weakening of a culture of continuous improvement.
It helps to have know-how and skill in building people up while also letting them face the brutal facts about the organization, its processes and themselves. Respect for people means not coddling people but giving them chances to become better able to face adversity, which they inevitably will face in life. Giving people challenges with opportunities to fail in small, safe ways, is part of this. Making it clear that we respect feelings but manage by facts is another.
In any organization there are problems of all different sizes and relative importance. Part of what makes an organization successful long-term with continuous improvement is being able to recognize the big problems that require attention from the leadership. Culture problems tend to fall into this category.
A can of mixed nuts might contain cashews, almonds, brazil nuts, macadamia nuts, pecans. What happens when you give the container a thorough shake? The almonds and macadamia sink to the bottom, the pecans and cashews hang out in the middle, and the brazil nuts rise to the top. This is not because of the brazil nuts’ superior drive and ambition. Smaller particles find their way to the bottom through convection, and as a result larger particles don’t have a path to the bottom. We can observe the same thing with how waves sort rocks on a beach over time. If only things were this way with problems of various sizes in an organization.
The same thing could happen in organizations that aren’t afraid to tip over silos, mix their metaphorical nuts and agitate their container, let the small problems settle to the frontline to be addressed by empowered people, while the largest problems rise to the top to the attention of senior management.
What does your organization signal as being off limits to improvement in your organization?