Leadership Blog

Improve Something Or Don’t Bother Coming To Work!

Posted on June 30, 2013 | in Culture, Innovation | by

             “If you haven’t improved something today, you shouldn’t have bothered coming to work!” … A top corporate executive challenged me with those thought-provoking words with an unannounced visit in one of my plants. 

Not exactly a question I was expecting, I was too slow to respond before he interrupted with a grin, “So, if you haven’t improved anything yet, we’d better get busy!”  Pointing to the nearest operation, he said, “let’s have some fun and see how we can help!”  After finding some prospects, the conversation drifted to an unrelated strategic subject, but his visual focus kept returning to a young lady operating a machine.  Abruptly, he said, “she looks confused, and if anything causes confusion, it’s broke.  Let’s help her!”  Initially uncomfortable by our offer of executive assistance, she quickly engaged a healthy analysis of the process, and we narrowed in on a problem with a promising solution.  The executive then asked, “If we were able to fix that issue, would that make your job easier and make you happy?”  She replied, “most definitely!” to which he responded, “Guess what, we are going to make that happen!” 

His questions to her continued, “If we could grant you one wish to make your job easier, what would that be?”  Without hesitation this time, she brought up another solvable problem.  The executive declared to me, “Let’s keep going!  We’re earning our pay today!”  Hours later, we finished, having not only contributed but reinforced the innovation culture by demonstrating the commitment by a top-level executive engaging the frontlines. 

Inventing new molecules or machines is not the norm on the frontline, but management must lead a healthy tension where the frontline is relentlessly in pursuit of new ideas.  Innovation must be strategically and deeply embedded within the culture and not dependent on random light-bulb ideas.  A leader must deliberately coach innovation as well as embrace a process to inject an objective perspective to get people out of their mental neutral zone.  Following are several best practices I have observed for coaching innovation:

o   Continuous improvement of everything, everyday, everywhere must be as natural as “coming to work.” 

o   Assume everything can be done better.

o   Routinely ask, “If we could grant you one wish to make your job easier, what would it be?”

o   Ask, “What did you improve today?”

o   Challenge the team to action: “Let’s go improve something!”

o   Challenge the status quo and raise the level of dissatisfaction.

o   “Always done it this way or never done it that way” are poison.

“Improve something or don’t bother coming to work!” … Out of context, this may sound a bit harsh, but it is a reality that must be deeply embedded into the culture of a sustainable and growing business. Pass It On!           


3 Responses to “Improve Something Or Don’t Bother Coming To Work!”

  1. KB

    I am enjoying your blog, Solid content. Have you ever led in a culture that is well… sensitive? You mentioned that out of context “improve something or don’t bother coming to work” might be construed as harsh. What do you do when it seems like a whole organization has some growing up to do? I just want to get down to business (respectfully of course) but there is a lot of thin skin. Any suggestions?

    Thank you

    Chris Bernard

    • KB Kleckner says:

      Yes, most leaders encounter the full spectrum of sensitivities, from those who’s feelings get hurt quickly to those who are so thick skinned that it is almost impossible to get through to them. Whatever the sensitivities, the leader must adjust their personal leadership skills to the situation. Here are a few helpful things to remember:
      • Remember situational leadership, adapting to the nuances of the personalities, and keeping them focused on the goals, roles, and responsibilities to get the work done right.
      • Making sure the logic of the situation is understood usually prevails, even if more attention by the leader is needed with the individuals.
      • Sometimes if I know something might trigger sensitivities, I encourage people up front to “check their feelings at the door.”
      • Critical is that everyone maintain respect for each other as a human being and a contributor. The leader must guide this.
      • If you conclude that someone just doesn’t fit or is blocking progress because of sensitivity, voluntary or forced attrition may be necessary. It costs money but sometimes is the right route.
      You’ve homed in on an important issue every leader must deal with. When done right, the team can move to very high levels of performance which is very gratifying for the leader.
      Best Regards,

  2. Chris Bernard says:

    Thanks KB. The mirror of accountability from leaders like you is so important to me. You are right about the gratification that comes when the team drives the agenda of innovation. I love being challenged to ” keep up”

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