Continuous improvement – the five paradoxes

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Why should HR concern itself with continuous improvement? Two reasons. First, one of the most important parts of HR is (or should be) a process of continuous improvement where each individual knows where he or she is in relation to his or her personal development targets and how to close the gap. Secondly, succeeding with continuous improvement requires a distribution of power and ability in the organisation. For it to work employees need to take a larger responsibility and managers need to start acting as coaches. This change should be synchronized with HR to ensure that their competence is utilised and to make sure people get the right support in developing the skills needed. 

But succeeding with continuous improvement has proven harder than expected for many organisations. One big reason is that there are a few challenges most organisations sooner or later encounter and where your intuitive responses actually prevent you from succeeding.

Paradox No. 1 – simplicity

  • A common reaction to failed improvement initiatives is going for a more advanced solution. Go the other way. Simplicity will stand the test of time.

For your organisation to succeed with continuous improvement you have to make it a natural part of the everyday work of every employee. For that to become reality your approach can’t be complicated. If it is, new employees will need special training to understand your improvement method, you will need additional support resources to keep progressing and backing it up will demand a great deal of your managers’ time.

Time is probably your most limited resource, and in the long run you can’t afford not to use everyone’s creativity. Kill two birds with one stone. Keep it simple to both save time and to give everyone a chance to contribute.

Paradox No. 2 – focus

  • A common reaction to recurring problems is bombarding them with solutions. Go the other way. Focus and dig deeper to find the real cause of the problem.

Imagine what would happen if I took you and ten of your colleagues to a scrap yard and asked you to build whatever you wanted.

The most common reaction would probably be to just stand there looking around, not sure what to do. Imagine instead that I asked you to build a vehicle that could transport all of you at least ten metres without any of you touching the ground. Now your heads would probably fill with images of wheels, axles, planks to stand on, and steering wheels to guide you along the way. Instantly you would become more creative and could start to organise and divide the work among you. Some people think that creativity grows best when all boundaries are removed. The opposite is true. When we limit and clarify the task it becomes easier for everyone to contribute.

The same principle applies to problem solving. When you zoom in, dig deeper, divide into smaller pieces and discard the unessential the Eureka moment will come, and that’s when you find easy-to-implement solutions with great impact.

Paradox No. 3 – visualisation

  • A common reaction to lack of initiative is pointing out problems that need to be fixed. Go the other way. Visualise good examples and positive results first to inspire action.

In an environment where managers constantly tell or show people in what way they are inadequate nobody wants to be the centre of attention. To draw focus away from themselves people will start pointing out faults they see around them instead, and before you know it you have developed a culture of blame.

If you start by visualising good examples and positive results instead you will create a positive atmosphere and give people a chance to adopt a behaviour worthy of praise. But even more importantly, when you continually highlight progress made and focus on the strengths people have you also create a safe environment where improvement potential can be expressed without people becoming defensive.

Paradox No. 4 – ownership

  • A common reaction in crucial situations is adopting a command and control approach. Go the other way. Ownership is a prerequisite for using one’s full potential.

If you are told exactly what to do when it really matters you will start to question your own ability to handle difficult situations. What’s worse, when you are confronted with challenges in the future it is likely that your insecurity prevents you from taking good decisions or even acting at all.

As a manager, try asking yourself how many questions you ask compared with the number of statements you make. What is your question-statement ratio? Do you try to be more interested or more interesting? If you double your question-statement ratio, you will both learn more and get more out of your colleagues.

Paradox No. 5 – system

  • A common reaction to shortage of improvement ideas is launching an idea campaign. Go the other way. Only a systematic approach builds organisational improvement competence.

Running an idea campaign is a popular method for tapping into the creativity of an organisation. There is only one problem with them. They kill creativity! If there is an unmet need to be listened to in an organisation, an idea campaign might create a surge of ideas - a surge so big that only a fraction of all ideas can be implemented. This means the majority of people will get yet another confirmation that no one listens to their ideas, and next time they are less likely to contribute.

A systematic approach should not only make sure that improvements are made and problems are solved daily but also increase the improvement competence of your organisation every day. When you have a system like that you will save yourself stress, time, energy and money!




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