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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Continuous Improvement: The Magic Ingredient for Successful Companies

Culture is a set of shared values, goals and behaviours that bind people together in pursuit of a common goal.

Often, that's because a charismatic leader unwittingly shapes the culture by encouraging certain types of behaviour. But a business driven by one person can lose its way as it grows. And, should that leader move on, the culture may leave with him.

A culture must take on a life of its own, one built on a shared set of corporate values: principles intended to shape the behaviour of all stakeholders.

If you examine enough businesses, you'll realize there is no one model for the best culture. But there is a common thread among great cultures: they all have "continuous improvement" as a key value. In such a culture of excellence, everyone takes an active interest in making the firm better tomorrow than it is today.

You can nurture a great culture through five key influencers: physical environment, language, stories, symbols and rituals.

Physical environment: If you were to walk into a messy and cluttered room, would it make you feel different than if the room were neat and clean?

Our physical surroundings strongly influence our emotional state and behaviour, yet rarely do we give them a second thought. But some companies get it. Toyota is known for its fanatical attention to order and cleanliness, which supports the systematic, orderly behaviour of its employees.

Language: Every subculture has its own language.

One common tactic in business is creative renaming of job titles. For example, WestJet calls its share-owning employees "WestJet owners," encouraging them to treat the airline and its customers with greater care.

Stories: Probably the strongest cultural influencer is a story that's worth telling. Great stories become folklore and deeply influence a culture by being told and retold.

For example, the U.S. department-store chain Nordstrom is famous for superb customer service. As the story goes, in 1975, a customer walked into a Nordstrom store in Fairbanks, Alaska, and asked for a refund for his tires. An employee on the job for just two weeks gave the customer his money back, with no questions asked. The kicker? Nordstrom didn't sell tires. The story has become legendary within the company, and leaves no doubt among new employees about Nordstrom's commitment to customer service.

Symbols: Throughout history, organizations have used symbols to shape behaviour. They may use symbols as rewards, such as with Olympic medals, or to communicate important information, such as with traffic lights. But however they're used, what matters is the message the symbols convey.

At 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, team members often stand by the side of the road sporting bright blue frizzy wigs and waving at the traffic. The wigs were originally part of a hockey-related PR stunt, but have taken on a much deeper meaning, reminding employees that the firm was founded on out-of-the-box thinking.

Rituals: These are established routines we follow in given situations. Rituals guide much of our lives, including our lives in the workplace.

Employees at one of our clients do a silly little dance whenever they exceed their production targets. What started as an employee's joke has spread across the shop, turning into a bonding exercise tied to an important business objective.

Rituals need not be comical or complicated to be effective. One of my firm's rituals is to devote part of each weekly team meeting to educating each other about something new. It's a simple way to keep education at the forefront of our culture.

Idea: Regular Hansei's, stretch breaks during meetings, sharing success stories to open meetings

In the end, corporate culture is all about your people. Can you shape behaviour? Absolutely. But only if your employees buy in to what you're trying to accomplish. You can't ram it down their throats; you need to get them involved.

Use your internal Lean champions, to perpetuate positive cultural change.

Credit: Profit online magazine
Full article here

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