Sustainable improvements Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2009

Organizational change to secure greater business results is never easy. Even when you are willing to create a culture that encourages it, you may worry that it cannot be sustained in the long run.

“The biggest concern executives have as they invest resources in developing people and streamlining processes is, ‘Am I confident that these changes are going to last?’” says Tara Amis, education coordinator at Definity Partners. “To ensure that you as a leader have confidence in your operational results, you must devote considerable time and money toward building the organization’s collective knowledge base so improvements can be sustained.”

Smart Business spoke with Amis about how to build an organization that persistently challenges the status quo and create a culture that continuously breeds “Champions of Change.”

What role do front-line personnel play in achieving sustainable operational improvements?

Front-line personnel can be an organization’s most valuable resource. These employees have the biggest impact on achieving higher productivity. Because they are involved in the day-to-day operations, front-line personnel can easily identify where wastes are occurring, where costs can be eliminated and how to best exceed customer requirements. All of these are issues that management struggles with regularly; however, they often do not discuss these problems with those employees who hold many of the answers: front-line personnel.

Management needs to tap into this important resource if they want to achieve significant operational improvements. Without input from front-line personnel, management will continue to be left contemplating how to improve their organization. By creating an environment in which front-line personnel know their ideas are valued and are confident in speaking out, managers are on the right path to creating ‘Champions of Change.’

How can managers create those ‘Champions of Change?’

Employees often worry about their jobs, thinking ‘What if I mess up? Am I going to get fired?’ Management needs to remove that fear, and instead, empower employees, giving them the authority and ability to go out and make change — and the freedom to make mistakes. When employees are given this liberty, they are able to try something new, and if they do not succeed, they can go try something else. Even if they only achieve a 50 percent solution, these results are better than had they not tried at all. Employees can continue to build off of even the smallest of improvements.

It is important that management step back and allow their employees this freedom. Otherwise, management may unintentionally quell operational improvements by not listening to their front-line personnel or by getting too involved due to their lack of confidence in the operational system and the front-line personnel responsible for managing it.

What else can a leader do to encourage sustainable change?

There are several things leaders can do to continually encourage sustainable change. They can take employees to visit world-class organizations, allowing them to view how other production floors and/or service centers operate. Employees can learn through interactions with those responsible for running these highly efficient and effective organizations. These trips can give employees a better idea of your performance expectations.

Mentorship programs can also provide an opportunity to learn and create change. Mentors offer expert advice and an extra layer of support to employees who are diving into new situations and facing unanticipated roadblocks. Although roadblocks often provide a learning experience for budding champions, it is often much more beneficial to employees to work through these roadblocks with the help of a mentor. This way, employees will know how to go around the roadblocks next time.

Finally, offering continuing education to those who show initiative, promise and the desire to learn gives these champions additional tools and leadership development opportunities. They can then take these tools back to work, where they can implement them and influence other employees.

How does education develop people?

Continuous reinforcement through training gives front-line personnel a larger knowledge base, increased confidence and an understanding of proven lean principles and tools. It also keeps them thinking of new possibilities and keeps them motivated to achieve additional improvements.

In addition, champions act as hands-on teachers in the workplace, conveying those tools and leadership skills on to their peers. They are taking the tools they have learned and demonstrating desired behaviors. A lean mindset takes hold among the collective employees when they have someone they work with on a daily basis to model their actions.

How else can leaders incorporate lean principles into employees’ daily production habits?

Leaders must implement a system of measuring and rewarding success. Success can be measured by reviewing the continuous improvements employees are making and by looking at how they are sharing their training and lean mentality with their co-workers.

Employees who consistently perform well must be rewarded in various ways, from public praise to an increase in responsibilities to monetary rewards. Invest your corporate resources in your ‘performers’ to raise the performance bar for the remainder of your employees.

Although giving front-line employees opportunities to improve is essential to improving operations, change will not sustain if there is not management support at the executive level. Management support and buy-in is critical in order to cultivate these ‘Champions of Change.’

Tara Amis is education coordinator for Definity Partners. Reach her at (866) 520-2003 or