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Continuous Improvement Development for Leadership and Professionals

By Steve Kane Updated on March 1st, 2022

This article was written by John Knotts. John is a senior coach at Gemba Academy. 

If you have studied anything about change management, you will have seen some type of change model; I embrace the change continuum model shown below but have seen several different ones.  The first actions in change management are designed to get employees to a level of acceptance of change.  To do that, you must first build an awareness and then an understanding of the change.  If you have ever examined Prosci’s ADKAR model, to effect the change, you must provide the employees with the skills to implement the change.  Thus, to really get people to change, you need to build the awareness and understanding of the change and then give them the tools and training to make the change happen.  Building a Continuous Improvement Culture is clearly a change activity and requires that you develop employee skills to make the change successful.

Think back to my previous article and how A Culture of Continuous Improvement Begins with Leadership.  If applying change management to employees is important to the success of building this culture, then the first employees you should start with are the leaders and managers of the organization.  If you start with the front-line employees, but the leaders do not understand nor are capable of implementing the change, then you will cause confusion and strife in the organization.

In that article, I described my strategic culture model, which I share in every strategic planning session I lead.  Leaders and managers drive a culture through their actions – it takes both sides of the equation to be successful, thus it takes both leadership and management traits in your senior employees to enact this type of culture shift for your organization.

Develop Leaders

The problem lies when the leaders and managers – the professionals in the organization – do not know “what” the change looks like or “how” to make the change.  Think back to the strategy model that I introduced in Crafting Your Continuous Improvement Strategy.  The first step in the strategy model was to Define the Foundation.  A crucial step in your journey is to develop those that will lead this effort first.  Thus, you must start with a foundation for your leadership.

If you think about that strategy model, coupled with the influencers in your organization, you literally have to run through an instance of the entire model with your leadership team first before you can deploy the effort to the entire organization.

This is why so many efforts of this type tend to fail.  We often think that we just need leadership “support” and “buy-in.”  Then we can develop the front-line employees and the culture will take hold.  However, leaders must “walk the talk” and demonstrate the culture they are building through their operating styles and demonstrated behaviors.  If this culture is not good enough for the management to know, understand, and apply, then why would their employees implement or follow it?

Development Strategies

So, with that being said, here are some ways I recommend you develop leaders and managers in building a culture of continuous improvement:

1.  I use the model of Measure, Improve, Change, Commitment, and Innovation as my teaching guide for leadership and management.  Feeding the leadership with small doses of this information over time can build their skills and confidence.  This is best done through regular lunch and learns/brown bag events.

2.  Send your leadership to Lean Six Sigma training.  Expecting certification from all of your leaders and managers is probably not a wise effort or investment – they do not need to be practitioners, but they should know what they are talking about.  Green Belt training is probably the best level to send them to.  White and Yellow Belt are generally too basic, and they should be able to gain that level of understanding from lunch and learns.  Black Belt is generally overly intensive on statistics and software usage like Minitab.  Gemba Academy provides several premium certification programs that can meet your leadership and management development needs.

3.  Check out what other courses your company offers.  See if they have classes around data analysis, problem solving, change management, employee engagement, project management, agile, innovation, etc.  These are great ways to add more capability aligned to the model.  Gemba Academy provides a Wikipedia-level library of over 1,500 training videos on many different subjects.

4.  Build discussion groups around short internet articles or around key leadership and process improvement books.  Have each participant lead a discussion on a specific article or chapter from a book you have selected.  This continually builds their knowledge.  We learn best when we teach others what we have learned.

5. Encourage involvement in professional organization meetings that focus on improvement.  The American Society for Quality (ASQ) is a great place to start.  However, there are other organizations in some areas that can increase ideas and networks.  Some of these organizations also have annual conferences where great information and ideas are exchanged.  Gemba Academy will be at the ASQ Lean and Six Sigma Conference, February 27- March 1, 2022, in Phoenix, AZ.  Be sure to stop by their booth!

6.  Field trips to places that can demonstrate quality activities can also be an effective teaching method and good teambuilding event.  Oftentimes, leaders will confirm that they know what they are building and what it looks like, but really do not.  Going to gemba, so to speak, for leaders is taking them to places where this culture is clearly evident.

Application is the surest way to make the development training and education stick.  As you conduct these activities or send leaders and managers to official training, find ways for them to apply what they learned right after they are finished.  This application demonstrates the level of understanding and can firmly entrench the education in their day-to-day activities.

Align Objectives

For senior leadership, align these activities to your employees’ annual performance plans and outline steps to build competency around the subject.  Aligning these type activities to annual performance is a great way to measure the effectiveness of the effort.  Objectives should be time-based, and each objective should cover these three elements:

1.  Complete a specific developmental activity or set of activities.

2.  Lead a discussion or training session around the activity(s) completed to share the knowledge.

3.  Implement what was learned in the work center under the mentorship and coaching of another employee.

Here is an example of a well-crafted, time-based objective that a leader can apply for their managers:

“Enroll in and complete Lean Six Sigma Green Belt training (and certification) within the next six (or twelve) months.  Hold a lunch and learn event for the leadership team within two months of completing the program to outline the problem-solving process learned in the training.  Apply the problem-solving methodology to a small project under the guidance of one of the organization’s Black Belts (typically a requirement in certification).  Brief myself and the staff on the results before the end of the performance year.”

To effect the changes required to build a culture of continuous improvement, leaders, managers, and professionals are the first people you need to develop.  These individuals will become your change champions.  They will help deploy the knowledge, skills, and abilities required by everyone in your organization.  Everything we have discussed in this series has led up to this activity and it all ties together.  There are many ways to develop the leadership and professionals of your organization but remember that this necessary action can take time and is often overlooked.  It is not good enough that you have leadership support, but they must be able to adopt the change themselves before front-line employees will follow.

Building a Culture of Continuous Improvement is a multi-issue article that will span the next several months.  Next article, we will dive deeper into educating leadership and professionals by discussing field trips and tours of other companies.

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