Business leaders identify two critical factors which drive success in world class organisations:
Successful organisations seek to improve performance in every area of their work:
The benefits to organisations of involving their people in improving performance are significant but it requires real commitment on the part of the organisation, its managers and all employees to be successful. Managers must encourage open discussion about means to improve performance, and about the identification and implementation of solutions to problems. They must create a framework to help people to come together to identify means to improve performance and resolve problems, securing commitment and support from all levels in the organisation.
The senior management team are responsible for defining the framework for the continuous improvement process. This involves creating a culture in which managers recognise the importance of involving their people in teams to tackle problems and improve the performance of processes for which they are responsible, and working together to identify means to improve the performance of processes which involve more than one function. It also involves creating an environment in which employees feel sufficiently committed to the organisation – and supported by the management team – to put in the effort required to improve things. The key ingredients for any successful change process are outlined in figure 1.
Management must understand the need for change, communicate this need throughout the organisation and develop a plan to address each of the ingredients for change:
Performance improvement can only be achieved by improving the processes within the organisation. Processes are designed and operated by people so the only way to improve performance is through people and the people best placed to improve a process, to make it run better cheaper and faster, are frequently those who operate it every day, and really understand how it works.
Effective continuous improvement therefore depends on the ability of managers to ensure that everyone becomes actively involved in improving performance, working effectively in teams to analyse processes, investigate problems and implement solutions. Successful performance improvement depends on the effective operation of two principal types of team.
A corrective action team is a cross-functional team set up to improve the operation of a specific process, or analyse and solve a particular problem, which may have been identified by a workplace improvement team, by a customer or by management.
Managers select the appropriate team leader who is usually responsible for choosing individual team members, subject to endorsement by their managers. Members of the team should be selected from the work places in which the solution is most likely to be implemented.
The corrective action teams use the same approach to planning, analysing, identifying solutions, verification and implementation as workplace improvement teams.
On completion of the project, the corrective action team is disbanded. New teams are selected to work on new projects – allowing the appropriate mix of individuals to be pulled together for each circumstance.
Corrective action teams are generally easy to establish and maintain. They are management led and can lead to employee participation but not true employee involvement. They do not, however, lead to a change in culture and the basic way the organisation operates because they are management led and directed. They are primarily used to resolve the bigger issues which affect more than one function, and which prevent the organisation from working effectively.
Workplace improvement teams involve people from the same work area, or those who work on the same process. The team selects the problems which they intend to resolve and meets regularly to identify, analyse and resolve these work-related problems. Workplace improvement teams are important as they drive improvements in individual functions or in the performance of individual processes. They are also the foundation for changing the culture of the organisation – providing a basis for involving everyone in the continuous improvement of performance.
Often starting with voluntary membership, over a period of time, active participation will become the norm, and workplace improvement teams will be established.
As these teams grow in competence and confidence, organisations typically find that they become able to take on more responsibility and get increasingly involved in making day to day decisions. If managers are prepared to delegate the necessary authority, these workplace improvement teams can grow in stature until they take full responsibility for complete work areas, and may eventually evolve into self-managed teams.
However, these teams encourage employees to get involved in analysing processes and identifying and implementing improvements. This can present a real challenge for existing management-driven organisations. They challenge the culture of the organisation, the behaviour within the organisation and the way the organisation is managed. But they can enable organisations to realise significant benefits by releasing the full potential of all employees, enabling them to apply their skills and experience in the efficient running of operations with which they are intimately familiar.
Successful continuous improvement programmes need to embrace both types of team – workplace improvement teams to deliver a host of improvements to individual processes and corrective action teams to help to resolve multi-functional issues.
The ability to continuously improve performance is essential in today’s very competitive environment. Every organisation has to deliver more for less. Realising the potential in every employee, and getting them involved is the key to achieving a continuous improvement in performance. The challenge is to develop the structure culture and leadership style which will encourage individuals and enable them to get involved, and use the power of teamwork to deliver real performance improvements.