Continuous improvement... one step at a time

Continuous improvement – why is it so hard?

I remember coming out of a management certificate about eight years ago hugely optimistic about the idea of continuously looking for ways to learn and enhance a business and its people’s performance. I had decided to name myself the ‘continuous improvement leader’ of our small agency and, over time, successfully integrated the concept of ‘continuous improvement’ into the culture of the organisation.

Continuous improvement... one step at a time
Continuous improvement… one step at a time

I was reminded of this period of my life over the weekend while reading the latest edition of Harvard Business Review (November 2015) and the article “Why organizations don’t learn”.

The article argues that even though leaders believe that to stay competitive their organisation must learn and improve every day, most companies find it difficult to always practice what they preach. It goes on to explain four types of bias that interfere with learning:

  • Bias toward success
    1. Fear of failure (this post I wrote last September touches on this)
    2. A fixed mindset (this post on the growth mindset explains this)
    3. Over-reliance on past performance – hiring and promotion decisions are based on performance, rather than potential
    4. The attribution bias – attributing failures to bad fortune, thus not optimising the learning opportunity
  • Bias toward action
    1. Exhaustion – an over-worked workforce, or one with long shifts, will be too tired to learn
    2. Lack of reflection – no time given to reflect on what went well and what didn’t (read my post Stop. Reflect.)
  • Bias toward fitting in
    1. Believing we need to conform – organisational norms and rules can deter people from thinking outside the box
    2. Failure to use one’s strengths – when people feel the need to conform, they are less likely to be themselves and draw on their strengths
  • Bias toward experts
    1. An overly narrow view of expertise – relying on a narrow definition of expertise can mean missing out on different types of experience and knowledge
    2. Inadequate frontline involvement – frontline employees are too often not given the tools and knowledge to spot and solve problems

There’s no doubt that a strong learning mindset and multiple initiatives that facilitate innovation, when integrated into the fabric of an organisation, can lead to great discoveries and progress.

Reflecting on my past experience, I would also say that leadership is absolutely key to creating this culture of continuous learning and improvement. A leader who encourages reflections, welcomes different or bold ideas, coaches their people, role models learning behaviours, and inspires and empowers their employees to be at their best is bound to be on the right track. Of course, it’s always easier said than done…!

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