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Managing for Continuous Improvement

A familiar scenario?

Here is a situation that you might recognise.

You discover that the tools and methods your organisation has committed to adopt have been set aside and instead one of your colleagues is persisting in managing their people and processes the way they always have. Their influence and attitudinal behaviour flows down through to their own team so that your challenge now becomes more than just dealing with the manager, it is how to get the whole team and their outputs to contribute consistently towards your goals.

“Leadership implies working on the system to continually improve it, with the help of people” Myron Tribus

It’s a common enough frustration faced by leaders, particularly when trying to lead and inspire a programme of continuous improvement or change initiative.

On the bus but not on the team?

Recently a client of mine described to me how his whole business has embarked on a principle-based programme of transformation. They have trained their people, shared and celebrated numerous project successes and implemented visual management systems so that everyone can see what they are doing and what they are achieving. Behaviour, language, thinking and daily methods have all been adapted to encourage continuous systemic leadership. The Executive team is strong and supportive.

Sounds fantastic.

Except there is one manager who, very quietly, continues to work in exactly the same way they always have. They resist involving the team, do not seek input and avoid any attempts at studying a change or measuring process performance.

Based upon their years of experience, the manager thinks they know the right things to do and believes that is why they have been employed in this role. The person in question is bright and understands the complexity of what the business produces. They have attended Lean Six Sigma Green Belt training and witnessed the successes their peer managers have had by adopting these tools and methods.

So, what’s the problem?

My client believes there are two issues that are affecting the manager’s behaviour.

The initial project that the manager chartered was too big, so it became unwieldy and unsuccessful. For the manager, this has become ‘evidence’ against the methods despite them being successfully deployed elsewhere in the business. This manager hasn’t considered the impact of not seeking his teams contribution, nor the application of the tools to measure process performance. While the manager may have made the intellectual connection to the change, he has not made the emotional commitment that will allow him to build this into his everyday practice.

At PMI we would say this person has not bought into the ‘bottom of the hamburger’- or the part of The Gibb Model that deals with ‘how we feel about it. This means that when faced with challenges in the workplace, the manager reverts to type – unconscious, automatic responses, formed through years of working that way. They simply don’t feel the need to stop and ask questions of themselves and even less of the team – the people who actually do the work – before taking action.

This ‘managing in the moment’ strategy is sometimes successful but often is not – clearly their leadership method has much inherent variability. Because they are successful some of the time, there is no compulsion to change. When their boss questions their approach, they have ready excuses for why they don’t use tools or methods.

Hope is not enough!

This manager’s behaviour is unlikely to change without intervention – some new strategies are required. Going back to first principles, looking for small changes, my client has decided to tackle this challenge by adapting the conversation style they have with this manager.

If any of this sounds familiar, here are a few approaches that have worked for us:

  • Check your own behaviour first
    Most of us respond to what we see and hear around us. Are you exhibiting the behaviours you want to see in others? Are you praising the use of process management, not praising successful firefighting?
  • Are you prepared to give this some time and attention?
    This manager will need deliberate support, can you justify the time? Are you committed to helping and coaching them? If not, who else in your organisation would be a good coach and mentor?
  • Watch your language and change your questions
    Rather than “What will you do?”, ask “What is your theory of what will happen?” This is PDSA in action. Write down the theory so you can study the results with them afterwards.
  • Use time-based data to test theories rather than accept unqualified statements
    Show how time-based data can prove that a change is an improvement e.g. “The output is now stable and capable – here is my control chart to show it.” Not “Output is up this week.”
  • Go to Gemba with the colleague (go and see where the work is actually done)
    Have conversations with them and their team in the place where the actual work is performed. Ask about what data they have, who controls and reports the data, what theories do they have about what will happen?


Do not be deflected by short-term circumstance

Leading transformation requires persistence. It is common for people to want to go back to old habits, particularly when the going gets tough, rather than put the effort into systemic thinking methods. Lead by example and build an environment in which your managers and their teams naturally imitate your behaviour and go on to develop and practice improvement thinking for themselves.

Leaders who develop their approach to work on improvement thinking first, and then draw on improvement methods, have a better appreciation of the right time and the right place to use the available tools.


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