You are currently viewing Do you want your business to continue to suck? Don’t weave continuous improvement into your culture.

Do you want your business to continue to suck? Don’t weave continuous improvement into your culture.

If you read these notes regularly, you already know that I f!cking hate Lean.

But one of the main tenets of Lean (that I actually like, for the record,) is continuous improvement. This is about asking your people who are on the ground doing the job what changes can be made to make the job better and more efficient so they don’t hate their lives while doing it.

When you ask, listen, and implement changes, you weave continuous improvement into your culture.

But you have to continually have these meetings with your people on the ground and work into the culture the idea that everyone thinks about how we could do things better and more efficiently. You can’t just pay this lip service. You should have a backlog of things to change and a plan of attack so they get fixed.

The thing is, no one does these steps in Lean even though they’re crucial to making it work correctly.

When we at StarSpring come in to do a technical engagement, a lot of the questions we ask are cultural in nature and are about the business processes people go through. In trying to explain how their day looks and the steps they take to do their job, we get a feel for some of the technical hurdles they’re trying to overcome. We want a feeling for what the business is trying to do so we can suggest business improvements and build those processes together. Then, we choose software or build software in-house that will best perform those functions to support the business processes and produce the clean, actionable data leaders need to make decisions.

But because these questions are usually cultural and process-oriented in nature rather than technical, we often get funny looks when we ask them. People say, “what does this have to do with upgrading our technology?”

My response is basically: if I’m trying to write a book, I don’t start with “well, what is the rollerball size in my pen?” I start with “what’s the story I’m trying to tell?” We rarely start with the tool you’re using to do the thing. We need to talk about the thing itself, and we can talk about the details about the tool later once we have a plan for what you’re trying to do.

When we’re talking about the thing itself, it also becomes clear when a business process either doesn’t exist or isn’t fully fleshed out. It becomes obvious where there’s room for improvement. These things need to be fleshed out before you can either select and configure software to that job or build software to do that job.

When we came into a large transit agency in the Northeast, there were several oral history policies but no clearly defined rules in the collective bargaining agreements or special orders from the GM’s office on what was to be done. We needed to tell the computer what to do, but we couldn’t tell the computer “when this happens, we usually do this.” So we got folks together to all agree on a standard process in writing.

The businesses we work with usually know the outcome they’re trying to get. Maybe they don’t have a lot of documentation or don’t have continuous improvement built into their culture. They usually have plenty of oral history, but no documentation. An important tenet of continuous improvement and listening to your people is documenting.

In college, I studied archeology — particularly the Bronze Age. The Bronze Age is generally what we consider the start of civilization. For certain cultures, there’s a lot of information because they wrote their stories down. But for many ancient cultures, we only know bits and pieces because their stories were mostly passed down through oral history and song.

I refer to companies that have a wealth of knowledge but not a lot of documentation as oral history companies. When we shift the culture, we augment that rich oral history with writing the tales down. Oral history is never exact – different people hear it, interpret it, and share it differently – and like I told one manager at a manufacturing client, if your process isn’t written down then you don’t have a f!cking process.

Listening to your people, documenting processes, agreeing, and ratifying processes as a group is super important to weave into the culture.

Some leaders don’t want to do the cultural part. They just want to slap a new tool on and call it a day. But you can’t do that if you want your results to last and your company to be ahead of the game. You need to build these things, and the best companies, regardless of the vertical they’re in, do. They’re clear about their processes and regularly review and update them.

The amount of people who leave companies because of bad leadership is high. But the number who leave because of bad leadership on top of a lack of processes is probably even higher because at least having a process can make a bad manager not terrible when they have to adhere to the word of the law.

I can’t overstate the importance of putting these things into practice to change your culture. Without continuous improvement and putting these processes in place, technical debt will just build up again. I know it’s hard and scary — but leaders need to make it clear that even though it’s hard and scary, we’ll work through it and we’re all in it together.

If throwing a lot of money and technology at your problems hasn’t worked before (spoiler alert: it never does), call us. We’ll bring the necessary cultural pieces to the table to help your change stick and last for a long time — so it requires less transformation in the future.