How Do Leaders Inspire Continuous Improvement by Employees?

Leaders Can Create an Environment That Elicits Continuous Improvement

Continuous improvement transpires because of the questions the leader asks.


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“If you're still in the same role in two years, I've failed.” This statement was made by a Vice President to an employee who had taken the job working for him right out of college. This statement had a big impact on the employee. He had never thought that helping employees grow and develop as part of the role of a leader.

Now, this man was speaking specifically to a young, new employee—a new grad taking on his first professional job. It's not practical or wise to think that every person is ready to move on within each two year period.

Higher Level Jobs Take Longer to Learn for Employee Continuous Improvement

The higher the job level, the longer you need to stay in the job before moving up the ladder. Otherwise, you're not ready for the demands of the next level. But, regardless of the level of employees, leaders should always look for opportunities to help their employees move to that next level.

The concept of continuous improvement isn't just about increased responsibility and promotions, though. Continuous improvement is about every aspect of your career and work-life—and your personal life.

While every employee is responsible for improving their own life and career, if you want to progress to a senior leadership role, you need to focus on improving more than just your own work.

Inspiring Continuous Improvement From Your Employees

Continuous improvement is not just about getting your employees promoted (although that is definitely part of it), it's about improving their performance in their current job. It is also about changing the job and their responsibilities as they improve—so that they can continue to grow.

The latter is more complicated. You need the same tasks accomplished, no matter how long the employee doing them has been in the job. But, you or the employee can always discover a better way to do a task.

Helping your employees learn that a better way will make your department look better. The improved process will make your employees feel better about themselves and prepare them for a promotion into a different job, even a lateral move.

Some managers don't want their best employees to move on to different jobs—after all, good employees are difficult to replace. While this feeling is completely understandable, if your employees don't feel that they have the opportunity for continuous improvement, you'll lose your best employees anyway. You just won't have any control or say in the matter.

If you create a culture where improvement is expected and then rewarded with raises or promotions (either in place promotions or promotions into new jobs), you'll attract the very type of employees you love—the hard workers who are driven to improve and succeed.

Continuous Improvement of Your Department

Continuous improvement is not just about developing the employees, it's about developing your department and responsibilities, too. (At the same time, these activities will also develop your employees.) You need to constantly ask these questions.

  • Is this the best way to do this task?
  • Is there something that we're not doing that we need to do?
  • Is there something that we are doing that we need to stop?

All three of these questions, when asked regularly, can lead to a continuously improved department or business function. Here's how to ask these continuous improvement questions.

Question: Is This the Best Way to Do This Task?

Sometimes tasks are performed one way just because that's how the task has always been done. A manager might ask himself, “I've asked myself that question three times already, why on earth would I find a better way now?” The answer may be that new technology has been created. But, you may also be asking the wrong person—try asking the employee who is responsible for the task.

Keep up with professional publications—make sure that the employees also have access. You can't spend your whole life trying to find the holy grail of project perfectionism, but when an employee has a suggestion about how to improve things—listen. She may be right

Question: What Are We Not Doing that We Need to Do?

Even when you're feeling overworked, you can't improve if you're not asking this question. What activities will not only help your clients or customers but will help develop your employees as well? You can become more efficient and better prepared to handle the future.

If you're not looking for better ways to produce work, you may lose out. For instance, once Kodak was the king of film. When digital photos were introduced, Kodak managers didn't say, “Hey, we should produce digital photos.” Instead, they focused on their film. The result? Well, when was the last time you used film for photography? Someone should have said, “We need to focus on digital.”

What Are We Doing that We Should Not Do?

This question isn't asked nearly often enough. An old story tells about a newly married young woman who buys a ham, cuts off both ends of the ham, plops it in the pan, and sticks it in the oven. “Why did you cut off the ends of the ham?” the husband asks.

“This is how you make ham,” she says. “You always cut off the ends.” He pushes her a little more so she asks her mom, “Why do you cut off the ends of a ham before baking it?” The mom replies, “That's how my mother taught me to make a ham.”

The two of them go to grandma and inquire. Grandma says, “My pan was too small to hold a whole ham.”

You can laugh at this silly story, but you may have activities that you do in your job that are done for reasons that no longer exist. A report that no one uses. A process that was replaced by an app. Asking this question regularly can bring about the spirit of improvement that you need for a successful department.

When you take the idea of continuous improvement seriously, you'll begin to focus on making work better. for you and your employees. This means that you can create a better job without even updating your resume. Your employees will thank you for their continuous improvement opportunities as well.

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