STAND STILL AND STAGNATE

A recent Businessweek article (September 24, 2010) explained the recent fall from prominence of Finland’s mobile phone manufacturer Nokia this way: “Nokia clung to the idea that mobile handsets were mainly for phoning people. That was a disastrous call”.  By comparison, Apple and others had better ideas and today a whole generation would rather use a handset to text, tweet, or access friends via an online social network than make a phone call. So what does Nokia’s experience tell us about being a manager?  Stand still and you risk stagnation and falling behind.

In the 1950’s, the brand images that most Americans generally associated with Japanese manufacturing were cheap, low quality, and toys.  Then the Japanese discovered W. Edwards Deming and the concepts of “total quality” and “continuous improvement” and the rest is history.  What the Japanese call “kaizen” — the ability to continue making very small improvements in processes and products every day regardless of their current level of quality — has long been the secret behind the success of manufacturing giants like Toyota, Honda, and Sony.  The best managers know that continuous improvement can also be a major driver in their own — and their organization’s — success as well; regardless of whether their organization is the entire company, or a small component part.

But you just can’t talk the “continuous improvement” philosophy, as a manager, you must find ways to build it into yours and your subordinate’s thinking and daily activity.  We humans are such creatures of habit and lovers of comfort, it is so easy to settle into the way things are that we miss the subtle signs that signal the need for adaptation, improvement and change.  So managers must find ways to actively seek them out.

For example, I recall reading some years back of a Ritz Carlton manager who challenged all of her new hires to engage their fresh eyes to uncover what they considered flawed, poor, even stupid ways in which certain things were being done.  She promised them she would act on and reward all useful suggestions for change.  So here was a manager exploiting a newcomers fresh perspective before they had an opportunity to settle into “the way things get done around here“.  And believe me, that happens fast for most newcomers.  I have also worked with managers who set aside a regular block of time where they and their subordinates specifically brainstorm ways to improve their business activities.  To be effective, the rules for such sessions must include: (1) every idea is at least worth considering and (2) at least one idea per session will be tried.

So managers, what do you do on a regular basis to ensure that you and your subordinates are looking for ways to continually improve your product or service delivery?  The key is that your efforts must be regular and continuous.  Moreover, you absolutely must reward in some way the byproducts of these efforts.  Rewards need not be ostentatious but they must be real, public, valued by subordinates, and specifically tied to outcomes.

In a recent blog I talked about defining abstract concepts in behavioral terms.  The act of identifying and implementing a process or product improvement is a clear example of initiative and creativity that almost all subordinates can understand.  Being publically rewarded for such efforts is, in turn, a powerful reinforcement for them and all their colleagues.

Like so many aspects of management, there is no one right way to create a working environment where the need for continuous improvement — and a constant sense of exploring new ideas and ways of doing business — is a way of yours and your subordinate’s daily work life.  What the best managers know, however, is that doing nothing almost certainly risks a dangerous sense of complacency that eventually will undermine both  quality and competitiveness.  Thus, for the best managers and their organizations, complacency and standing still is not an option.

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