A series of small successes


Culture, part 4.  We’ve fought the fight to turn our compliant culture into an involvement culture.  We’ve strung together a series of small successes that now has everyone excited about your improvement efforts.  But now, with your kaizen team spread thin facilitating improvement activities throughout your workplace, things seem to have reached a plateau just shy of the summit.  You hear people talk about the last improvement event and how much fun it was; how energizing it was.  But it seems like they are waiting for the Kaizen team to return before they will be allowed to do any more improvements!

I’ve seen this live and in person in a couple of businesses.  What should be a relatively easy step from excitement to engagement, turns out to be a climb.  Why is this hard?

The distinction between a culture of excitement and a culture of engagement is self-determination.  In the first case, people aren’t convinced that improvement is their job.  They like it, but they wait for some prompt before they take the next action.


Maybe it’s a concern about resources.  With the kaizen team comes attention, support, money.  When they go at the end of the week, there’s almost a vacuum in the improved work area.  In lots of cases, that vacuum means the process degrades.  It ends up at a level only slightly better than it was before the event after about 6 months.

Maybe it’s fear.  The kaizen team helped the team make a big adjustment.  They required a certain way to track certain metrics or present certain information.  People get conditioned to believe that if they try something different, they’ll get into trouble for messing with what the kaizen team did.

Maybe it’s permission.  If leaders haven’t specifically told people that it’s okay to implement good ideas and improve every process, people probably won’t do it.  We should emphasize that, not only is it OKAY to do, we EXPECT it.  We acknowledged it.  We reward it.

I’ve seen lots of organizations with systems to capture employee ideas.  In almost every case, the idea has to go to some higher level management or engineering team for “evaluation” and planning.  These more often than not delay the implementation of good ideas or leave people frustrated because someone rejected their idea.

The key thing to remember is that your problem collection system and your idea management system are not operational systems.  These are components of your learning system.  We use the problems and ideas as vehicles to build problem solving skills in the workplace.  We have to solve problems and implement ideas where they occur, with individuals being coached by their peers or leaders.  Once this system is on its feet, then we will have a mechanism to help us climb from excitement to engagement.

If you have any questions or comments about this topic, send an email to us.


Steps leading from Involvement to Excitement

Moving from a culture of compliance to a culture of involvement is a very tough step for leaders. The steps leading from Involvement to Excitement are a little easier but still require some heavy lifting from leaders.

What sorts of things get people excited? Answering that depends a lot on the individual, but generally, the most excited folks I’ve ever seen are sports fans when their teams are winning. Winning in almost any kind of endeavor will have a positive affect on the people experiencing the win. It builds confidence as well, and that has a huge impact on our willingness to participate in the things related to a change initiative.

Winning is very closely associated with competition, so a lot of people think we should set up some kind of competition between our organizational sections to spur that excitement and drive more effective change. But you have to think full-circle about that. In an organization that allows this kind of competition, the results include losers as well as winners. And losing is not exciting. This kind of competition internally is always destructive. As people lose, they either withdraw their support or they undermine the winners so they can look better. Rarely do they tell their colleagues to buck up and try harder. None of this builds trust.

A better way to look at winning is through improvement activities like implementing a suggestion or solving a problem. Whenever you run an activity, you can check the results and make a couple of different decisions: 1) if the result is better performance than before the event, that’s a win. 2) if the result is the same or worse performance than before, that’s a win, if you focus on what you’ve learned and you try again.

You can also have a couple of different teams set up to try different countermeasures and see which works the best, but then have everyone work together to bring everyone up to the new level of performance together.

I often tell a story relating culture change to eating a Tyrannosaurus Rex (bigger and meaner than any elephant!) Of course, the only way to eat a T-Rex is one bite at a time. Where you start matters, though. If you start with the toughest piece and you can’t stand the taste or it’s too tough to chew, you’re going to be reluctant to take another bite. If you start with the tastiest bite, something tender and juicy and easy to swallow, then you’ll want to take another and another. Eventually, you’ll still have to eat the tough pieces, but after you’ve learned things through the tasty pieces, the tough ones are easier to break down and handle.

In practical terms, try hard to break a tough problem down into something easier to solve. Solve a smaller part and celebrate the success. Learn from the activity, then do it again. Every time you solve a problem, you’ll see that people will respond well. You’ll notice more willingness to try the next thing. They will still likely need some coaching and prompting, but after a series of small wins, people will begin to get more and more excited about changing their work to make it better.

To summarize:

1. Ask your folks to help identify problems or offer up some ideas about making their own workspace better. (Nothing very big!)

2. Write down the problems and/or ideas

3. Gather a little more information about the problem or identify the problem that sparked the idea. (Ask who, what, when, where, and how?)

4. Figure out what smaller things are contributing to the problem (ask Why is this happening?)

5. Pick ONE of the smaller things to tackle. Ask why that’s happening, and what are a few different things we can do to solve it.

6. Solve it. FINISH solving it. Measure the result and no matter how small it is, make a big deal out of it.

7. Go back to step 4 and pick the next small thing.

8. Repeat.

Time for a big T-Rex barbecue. Let’s gear up and get busy! Next time will talk about the difference between Excitement and engagement and how we can take those steps.

If you have any questions or comments about this topic, send an email to us.

The Big Step from Compliance to Involvement

In my culture evolution diagram, I show a staircase with steps from defiance to compliance, then compliance to involvement, then from involvement to excitement, and finally from excitement to engagement.  The big step from compliance to involvement is likely the most critical to creating a new culture.

It is not that difficult to get people involved.  I’m sure if you ask them to help, they’ll help.  But where I’ve seen this go sideways is when leaders open the doorway with a broad “tell me how we can improve this place” without first having built a couple of systems that will help you handle the flood of input.  See, mixed in with a few really good ideas from the team, you’re also going to get a ton of input you can’t really do anything with.  Things like complaints.  You’ll also get a bunch of ideas that will need some analysis before you know if they’re good ideas or not.

When the flood of input comes and systems are missing, they overwhelm the leadership and cause long delays in feedback to the team.  Let’s just say you get 100 ideas or problems identified every day for a week.  (It may not seem likely to you, but I promise you they are there.) If you haven’t designed, tested, and deployed an idea management system, this will collapse under the volume of input.  The Idea Management System should require evaluation and analysis that includes the person who submitted the idea or surfaced the problem.  If a management team or engineering is supposed to review all the ideas, your program will grind to a halt under this new burden on already very busy people.

Steps to a culture of engagement

When people don’t get feedback on their ideas or problems, they will conclude that management doesn’t listen, or they’re just paying lip service to having people involved.  And then they stop sending you ideas and stop identifying problems.

What kind of system will allow you to handle 100s of ideas and problems everyday?  How hard is it to build?  How much training will everyone have to do?

A Visual Daily Management System provides the structure needed to take this step.  The huddle boards, with the right metrics for the team, will allow problems to surface very quickly.  A problem register let’s everyone know that their problem has been noted and that we’re working to solve it.

We might also want to have an ideas register that has the same effect for those ideas our team members want to share.  The more visual we can make the ideas and problems, and the more we focus on keeping involved the person who submitted thC4 Board for capturing problems and idease idea or problem, the better.  I really like the results we’ve been getting with C4 Boards in several companies.  On these boards, there’s a column for New, then to indicate where the team is in the various stages of problem solving.

Most places still have some trust issues throughout the organization, but it’s our job to make it a little better day by day in many places.  Making the involvement of our team members more visible will only serve to improve the trust.  It will also pave the way to excitement and provide a strong foundation for full engagement.


If you have any questions or comments about this topic, send an email to us.