Some of the most innovative companies are also great at continuous and incremental improvement. I want to talk about three key points when it comes to succeeding with implementation of continuous improvement.

First is acknowledging that employee empowerment is at the heart of continuous improvement. The second is striving for total involvement by everybody, everywhere, everyday. Final, third point is that improvement is improvement. Cents turn into dollars.

Let’s expand on each.

Employee empowerment is at the heart of continuous improvement

In “Kaizen: The Key To Japan’s Competitive Success” Masaaki Imai divulges following as the core principles of continuous improvement:

  1. Process orientation. “Before results can be improved, processes must be improved, as opposed to result-orientation where outcomes are all that counts.”
  2. Improving and maintaining standards. “Lasting improvements can only be achieved if innovations are combined with an ongoing effort to maintain and improve standard performance levels.”
  3. People orientation. “Improvement is people-oriented and should involve everyone in the organization from top management to workers at the shop floor. Further more, it is based on a belief in people’s inherent desire for quality and worth, and management has to believe that it is going to “pay” in the long run.”

These principles are interlinked and interdependent. Without empowered people there can be no improvement. Micromanaging and overbearing bureaucracy stifle human creativity and desire to do better.

Due to the nature of my work I have residence in two countries, Croatia and Norway. Consequently, I have bank accounts in both as well. On one occasion I had to make a bank transfer while in Croatia, and went to my local bank office to do so.

To my surprise they requested my debit card. I explained that I’ve forgotten it, but surely that shouldn’t be a problem as I’m here in person, have my national ID as well as passport, and cash required for transfer. The bank teller explained that he can ask branch manager to approve it, but it takes seven days.

Since the manager was right there, I asked why can’t we do it right now, since we are all here. “Sorry, such are the policy and procedures. I know it doesn’t make sense, but we must follow them.”

Banking is a highly regulated industry; fraud detection and anti-money laundering processes must be impeccable; but above is neither.

Everybody, everywhere, everyday

Bottom up is usually brought up when discussing implementations of continuous improvement. While it is true that those closest to work are most suitable to improve it, they often lack decision making power and budget to do so on a scale.

That’s why “everybody, everywhere, everyday” is a better mental model. No one is absolved of improvements. At any given moment there are at least hundred things you can improve right now, right here.

Think deeply about following:

  • Everybody in the organisation should be aware and have an understanding of organization’s strategy and objectives. There shouldn’t be multiple interpretations, and it should be unambiguous. Without clarity improvement efforts are going to be scattered and without impact.
  • No elitism, no absolution. Everybody should be actively committed to daily improvement, regardless of their rank or seniority. Leaders should be especially cognizant of leading by example. After all, how can they demand from others what they themselves are not doing. That’s hypocrisy at its finest.
  • To improve is to learn, and to learn is to improve. Unlock even more value from your continuous improvement efforts by capturing the learning and sharing it broadly and deeply within the organisation. Ideas spawn ideas, perpetuating a virtuous cycle. Peer learning is also a powerful intrinsic driver.

Improvement is improvement

Director of one European bank invited me to their customer service centre, and we were to discuss how could they innovate better. After the meeting I asked him to take me on the walk around the office so I can observe the processes. He was more than happy to oblige.

The walls were plastered with wallpapers and dashboard, colourful metrics were displayed one the hanging screens, and there was a special area dedicated to the “Hall of fame.” Much to my delight there was a wall dedicated to the improvement ideas.

It was covered with large sticky notes, each with few sentences about the problem and potential solution. I picked a few at random, and noticed that they have dates written in bottom left corner. All of the dates were months ago.

Perplexed, I asked the nearby call operator to illuminate me. What’s going on? She fired her response like she was just waiting for someone to ask her that question:

“After each call we used to write down some improvement ideas. At the end of the week we collated and submitted them to the improvement department. They were constantly rejecting our proposals for either being too small or not innovative enough. After few weeks we stopped sharing and tried to implement what we can. That resulted in one of us being scolded for taking initiative without approval, so we just stopped altogether.”

Director was blushing, but hasn’t said anything. I thanked the operator for her honesty, and told the director that he should find time to fix this. By ignoring small, incremental improvements, they are effectively atrophying their organisational muscles. And not to mention all the savings that are left behind, lost forever. Cents turn into dollars.

Better banking

I’ve talked about three key points in regards to the role of employee empowerment in the implementation of continuous improvement, and what you can do to use them well. Let me remind you that if you really want to engage in this, the first thing to do is take any of them and start today.


Originally published on Global Banking and Finance Review.