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Ask The Coach — Change For The Better

Published on March 14, 2012

ImageDear Coach: I’ve read every one of your columns and notice a common theme that you refer to as “kaizen” — or Japanese for “improvement” or “change for the better.” I understand the philosophy of “kaizen.” What I don’t understand is how to get continuous improvement – – or any kind of improvement for that matter — in my practice. I point out all the errors to my employees as they occur with the hope that they will go away and performance will improve, but that doesn’t happen. Can you teach me how to translate this philosophy into real world application? T.W.

T.W., kaizen is a daily process, the purpose of which goes beyond simple productivity improvement. It is a process that humanizes the workplace, eliminates overly hard work, and teaches people how to perform experiments on their work using the scientific method and how to spot and eliminate waste in processes. The idea is to nurture your team as much as it is to praise and encourage participation in kaizen activities. Successful implementation requires participation of all workers, at all levels of your organization. The key elements of kaizen are quality, effort, involvement of all employees, willingness to change, and communication. The cycle of kaizen activity can be defined as:

Standardize an operation and activities

Measure the standardized operation

Gauge measurements against requirements

Innovate to meet requirements and increase productivity

Standardize the new, improved operations

Continue the cycle

You can see that kaizen is a system of ideas that work together with the goal of continually improving all functions in an organization. Creating a performance strategy that increases specific behaviors and decreases others is an entirely different matter. Bringing out the best in your employees and achieving superior results requires an understanding of behavior analysis. As you have seen, good intentions, common sense, and sincere hopes are just not enough to bring about improvement. What’s needed is a crash course in performance management principles so you can create the culture of improvement you desire.

We teach our clients that whenever there is a performance issue, the first question to ask is, “How did I fail this employee?” This is contrary to common practice, which typically looks exclusively to the employee for the cause of poor performance. The best employers create a work environment that brings out the best in people, supported by well-crafted policies, procedures, and processes. These same employers also commit to continuous and ongoing training, which provides the right opportunities for improvement to emerge.

Having done all of this, if performance issues do appear, we next look at the type of reinforcement the owner is providing to the performer. There is no more powerful strategy for creating a culture of improvement than applying the principles of positive reinforcement to human performance. Your primary role as owner, leader, and supervisor is not to “point out all the errors” as they occur, but to focus your attention and comments on improvement. The most effective way to get your team to learn from their mistakes is to focus on their smallest improvements, which encourages people to seek information, coaching, and training that will help them continue to improve. By focusing your time and energy on every error, you’ve become a prodding, nagging, and demotivating leader, consistently handing out punishment on a daily basis. As you’ve seen, this does not improve performance! An organization that recognizes and rewards the smallest improvements will make the fastest change since positive reinforcement accelerates behavior. One last word, positive reinforcement needs to be an hourly, daily, ongoing occurrence.

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