Continuous Improvement

We all recognize industry buzz-words when we read them and that often makes our brains shutdown momentarily. I will admit to having the same reaction at times. However, don’t be too quick to dismiss these concepts as out-of-date or useless. Instead consider changing your mindset and taking a few minutes of your time to decide if, when properly deployed, can make a significant impact on your performance and/or the performance of your company.

Continuous Improvement is a valuable concept and should be central to regular conversations concerning performance. The idea can take on two roles. One, what should we be doing and two, what should we stop doing. Both can improve performance.

To improve doesn’t necessarily require a huge change in direction or process. Improvements can come in all forms of process change from small to large. The benefit is to be on the look-out for ways to improve and to not be satisfied with the current level of success. Seems like common sense and yet can be so difficult.

The difficulty often arises from being so close to the current operation or processes. You have probably already fixed the glaring issues and now things seem to be running smoothly. The challenge is to find the smaller issues and make course corrections before they become major problems. You may need to get fresh eyes on the process that might see something you have missed. Often the line employees will have good ideas. Managers from other departments might add a fresh perspective. You might even need to hire a consultant with experience to improve thought processes, implement data collection and define training that can take your company to the next level.

Why is continuous improvement so important? I believe the concept is “if you aren’t moving forward, you are losing ground”. You need to be looking for ways to improve. Open yourself up to opportunities to get better. Don’t be hampered by the “not created here” syndrome. Be the change agent.

The Pyramid

You are probably familiar with the concept of the pyramid when it comes to describing a workforce in business. In general, the base of the pyramid is the greatest number of employees progressing to the top of the pyramid which is the CEO or similar title.

If you work for an “enlightened” boss you may have heard her/him refer to the Upside-Down Pyramid. The idea, in their company, is that the majority work force are the most important employees in the company. In other words, the line workers, operators, inspectors, buyers and so on. These are the people who keep the company moving by creating the company’s output, products or services.

I would like to spend the next few paragraphs challenging the idea of the Upside-Down Pyramid. To start let me state a fact that a pyramid resting on the pointed top is impossibly unstable and destined to fail. That is why anyone who builds a pyramid starts with the base and works up to the pointed top.

I understand the concept and the visual makes some employees feel good about their position. However, I would challenge that the most important part of the pyramid, in its original construction, is the base. Without a solid base there is no way for a pyramid to stand the test of time and the stress that will be applied throughout its existence. The base is the foundation upon which the balance of the company will be built. If the base fails the rest of the pyramid is soon to follow.

So how does one build and portray a company structure that promotes stability while not minimizing the importance of leadership and vision? I contend that you do so by recognizing the importance of the entire pyramid structure and promoting the solid foundation of the base.

If the base is lacking any functionality or ability you need to be able to pull from up the pyramid to “fill” the holes. In other words, the management chain cannot be afraid to get their hands dirty. Often this requires doing the most menial jobs as the manager may lack the proper training to do the more sophisticated work. Suddenly the top (or at a minimum a level of manager) of the pyramid is taking orders from the bottom.

The willingness to take action creates two outcomes, one, the importance of the base is evident and two, it lights a fire under the upper part of the pyramid to find a good, long-term solution to the lacking functionality or ability. The idea is to continue to build the base so that upper management has the time to build the vision and future.

Another idea that is paramount to building strong companies is to fill from below. Promoting internally, when possible, creates employee buy-in and retention. Creating managers from the base creates an environment that recognizes and understands the importance of a good foundation. Promoting from within is not always possible so when you have to go outside for talent, find an employee who holds a similar philosophy and is willing to learn about the functions of the company’s pyramid base and hold that in high esteem.

The last item I want to mention is pressure. The base of the pyramid may experience the greatest degree of pressure as they support the balance of the structure. So to alleviate this pressure there needs to be escape paths that will allow the hot air to rise. You create these escape paths through open door policies and a willingness to listen thus promoting the importance, once again, of the pyramid base. These individuals may have gripes but with gripes often rise solutions to problems that management had not considered.

I hope it has become very apparent to the reader how important the base of the pyramid is to a company’s success. I also hope that the reader understands that the base must be the foundation and therefore the bottom of the structure. The Upside-Down Pyramid is often a leaders way to make employees feel better about themselves without actually creating an environment where the workers at the base feel like they are the most important and recognize it in their every day. Ask that same leader to draw an organization chart and it will look just like a pyramid (not upside-down).

In conclusion, protect the foundation of your company and the workers who are responsible for maintaining that structure. Lead by example and recognize you also have to provide a future vision for the company to be successful. Don’t be afraid of reaching the echelon of upper management. You have earned the title. However, never forget on whose shoulders you stand when you reach that height. They, the base, will be the ones who make you look good.