Guts, Imagination & the Five Essential Elements of Continuous Improvement

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Mark Fendley

You need people with guts to challenge the status quo - but beware turning everything upside down, writes Mark Fendley, Continuous Improvement Manager at BMW in this month’s Tales from a Master Black Belt. There are some things better left alone and you need to foster a culture that understands the difference.

As defined by, the noun corporate culture is defined as "the distinctive ethos of an organization that influences the level of formality, loyalty, and general behavior of its employees; the shared values, traditions, customs, philosophy, and policies of a corporation; also, the professional atmosphere that grows from this and affects behavior and performance".

And as stated by one of the true pioneers of the modern era companies, although I would add the female gender to the modern version of his quote:

"A company needs smart young men with the imagination and the guts to turn everything upside down if they can. It also needs old figures to keep them from turning upside down those things that ought to be right side up."

Henry Ford (1917 - 87) U.S. chairman and C.E.O. of Ford Motor Company

I see profound wisdom and insight into that very definitive statement culture. I actually prefer it to the more academic definition of corporate culture. The key terms of "imagination", "guts", and "things that ought to be rightside up" speak volumes about the balance, or imbalance, that could be found in most companies regarding the stability and flexibility of culture.

We have all heard the too often or similarly used phrases of "if it isn't broken, why fix it", "we have done it this way for 5 – 15 - 25 years", "the executives and department heads will never support it", "our focus has to be the quarterly results, we have no time for the fluff". This is typically the sign of a corporate culture where the balance is heavily weighted in the favor of "old figures keeping things right side up", with a loss of recognizable, or rewarded, imagination and guts as a potential downside.

The danger of being too far in the opposite direction is that everything becomes a "flavor of the day/month/year/this CEO". Sustainability and lessons learned become fleeting without a solid understanding of what must be kept "right side up". And perhaps of greatest danger is what may have been a market or competitive advantage of the company is devalued or discarded over time.

How does your company achieve this balance so simply described by Henry Ford? Are the "smart young men and women" even allowed to use their imagination and guts to suggest, evaluate, implement, and sustain continuous improvement initiatives? And once it is in place, is the continued improvement of and change of the Lean, Six Sigma, and BPM methodologies and programs allowed, or do the "old figures" keep imagination and guts from changing elements and even direction of the "rightside up" corporate program?

I think five basic elements - some, but surely not an all inclusive list - found in companies and organizations that achieve a proper cultural balance are:

#1. Investing in Training & Development

The company is a learning organization, which is demonstrated by:

a) The budgets and expectation for employee development and education continues even in difficult economic times. During boom times, it continues. During times of transition in leadership, it continues. The company is always, consistently investing in the education, indoctrination and skill development of all employees.

b) The company actively seeks benchmarking opportunities and uses these opportunities to make actionable improvements. Much can be learned from very different organizations and industries. Approach others with the idea of reciprocating, "steal" good/great ideas that are shared, and learn from the pitfalls that others have encountered or endured.

c) The company knows their past, present, and future customers by learning from them and interacting with them.

#2. Being Self-Aware About Strengths/Weaknesses:

The company understands what cannot be touched. This is as important as understanding what can be touched. Most often this would be some characteristics that are customer facing. Some company traits must be protected at all costs, especially if it is your present and future competitive advantage. This could manifest itself in such characteristics as no compromise of product quality, of product quantity, level of service, product engineering, and/or innovation despite potential short term gains by abandoning the standard.

#3. Fostering the Next Generation:

The company nurtures and supports the next generation of "smart young men and women". Evidence of this could be support of primary and secondary education through corporate sponsored events such as camps, internships, Co-Op's, endowments, educator support, etc.

#4. Treating Suppliers and Vendors As Partners

Companies only focused on the cheapest price driven out of intimidated suppliers and vendors, will often miss out on true value that supports a better top line and bottom line. Being transparent and collaborative with suppliers and vendors does require imagination and guts.

#5. Problem Solving, Not Finger Pointing

The company is more focused on problem identification and resolution, rather than problem concealment. The questions to ask: are the "bosses" of the company positively excited when employees identify their own mistakes and challenges and problems of the department / division and take ownership? Is dissent allowed and encouraged, especially if it leads to better problem identification and solutions? Do the bosses reward this behavior? Or, is the normal business behavior to hide, blame, distract, and flee from problems identified?

I think almost any company can begin a continuous improvement journey. But for it to be truly sustainable and vibrant requires a corporate culture that is balanced. Imagination and guts should abound. The "old figures" must encourage this without any inconsistency. In addition, the "old figures" must provide guidance of what must remain "rightside up" - but first they must know this themselves. Measure your own organization against the suggested five elements to at least gain some insight into how well balanced you might be.