I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of continuous improvement. It’s so often pooh-poohed as a meaningless management buzzword or corporatespeak, or lambasted Dilbert-style as a euphemism for… well, no one really knows.
But when it’s done right and built into your business processes, continuous improvement can be one of the best things you can do for your business. Here’s why.
1. It’s a morale-booster.
Continuous improvement allows us to forgive ourselves for not being perfect the first time. And in doing so, it opens up a path forward into learning and finding better ways to do things the second time, and the third time, and the fourth. This mindset is excellent for morale, because it demonstrates that the company sees employees as people with the capacity, ability and desire to learn… and they are given the opportunity to do so.
In a workplace where management encourages continuous improvement, employees are supported through their mistakes and onto a path of learning. Providing staff with the opportunity to learn and grow in their work is one of the most important things that companies can do to hire and retain top-performing employees, and continuous improvement can help your company do just that.
2. It takes the anxiety out of mistakes.
In a workplace that sees mistakes as sheer liabilities, employees who make mistakes – and all employees will make them, because human beings are fallible – are anxious. They know that mistakes will hurt their relationship with management, even if the mistake was made in an attempt to do something different and perhaps better, and so they may take fewer positive risks.
This is not to say that the concept of continuous improvement should excuse mistakes. Nor should it be used to dismiss the potentially real damage caused by a mistake. Instead, continuous improvement should be used as a shift in the conventional thinking: instead of mistakes being seen as failures, they are learning opportunities – opportunities, that is, to improve.
3. It allows feedback to be helpful, not hurtful.
The art of constructive criticism is a delicate one. When you’re unhappy with someone’s work, it’s difficult to tell them what went wrong without bruising their ego – or potentially making them insecure about their work in general. The best managers find the balance between honesty and kindness, because ultimately, polite but firm honesty is the kindest way to manage.
In a workplace driven by continuous improvement, though, the purpose behind the criticism is different. Every mistake or problem is conceptualized as an opportunity to discuss the status quo and tweak it to improve the final product. Processes become learning experiences. Feedback turns from “here’s what you did wrong” into “here’s how we can do it better next time”. It’s an enormous, fundamental cultural shift, from negative to positive, from punishment to possibility.
I’m going to tell a personal story here, because stories are how we learn… and boy, did I learn from this one.
Not too long ago (but long enough ago for me to have learned from it!), I was recommended for a small contract by someone I like and trust, and who likes and trusts me and my work. It was sort of in my wheelhouse, but enough of a stretch that it was a challenge: a big challenge, in fact. It was for a major client.
I prepared for it. I worked hard on it. And, reader, I bombed it. I am used to doing excellent work and to having very, very happy clients and students. I didn’t have a happy client this time.
My first reaction was to worry that I’d permanently ruined my reputation and good name in the industry, and to be anxious that I’d let my colleague down. And although they were disappointed that the contract hadn’t gone better, they told me that the company is committed to continuous improvement, that I would receive very honest feedback about what went wrong, and that I would have another chance to do better on another contract.
That feedback was pretty painful to read. But I’m glad I set my ego aside and did it, and committed to my own continuous improvement, because reading that feedback allowed me to do two things: to find out about a few weak spots and set about fixing them, and to practice failing. I needed the opportunity to learn how to fail gracefully, and to use what I learned to do better next time.
I’m happy to report that, when the company gave me another chance to complete a similar contract, I did beautifully.
As a former academic, in particular, I have always been uncomfortable with failure; in an academic context, failure in one’s work is seen as tantamount to failing as a person. But in business, the concept of continuous improvement allows me to see myself and my work as a process, and allows me the joy of learning new things and getting better and better at the work I love.