May 1, 2015

Realizing continuous small improvements together

A good way to attain changes in organizations is to involve everyone in continuously realizing small changes. 

One of the important aspects of progress-focused work is to focus on small steps forward. Small steps have multiple advantages. One of the most important advantages is that the threshold to come into action is lowered. And once in action it is easier to make further progress. Sometimes people fear that taking small steps is not applicable in situation in which there are big problems. But maybe the opposite is the case. Especially when there are big problems small steps can be quite powerful.

In my article Taming the beast, of some years ago, a case is described in which a manager started dealing with a huge problem in his organization via the small steps approach. This manager described how the focus on small steps helped him and his colleagues to finally make a start in tackling this big problem. After just a few days there was great enthusiasm and the confidence that the problem could be solved. After that I did not hear from this manager until two years later, when he wrote an update (The power of small steps in project management). In this update he wrote that not only the beginning of the project had gone very well but also the rest of the project and that they had held on to the small steps approach. Eventually this manager and his colleagues have even started to use the small steps approach in projects for their customers.

This week we did a growth mindset workshop at the invitation of Karin Groen, a manager who uses many progress-focused principles and techniques in her work. Karin told us about two booklets (one of them was this one) by Robert Maurer, a psychologist at UCLA who is specialized in Kaizen. Kaizen is a Japanese word which means something like good change or change to better. The core of Kaizen corresponds with the small steps approach which I described above. Maurer describes many practical examples of how powerful the small steps approach can work. One of the most important reasons, according to Maurer, why it works so well is that it creates less anxiety. When you aim for big and sudden change and ask big questions and give big assignments you will create fear in most people. But fear and creativity don't go together well.

What works better is a continuous approach in which you ask small questions and give small suggestions and in which you engage everyone. This way people can continuously be making small improvements which may lead to great results over time. A small example in the book shows that it does not always take long before big results happen when focusing on small steps.

Herb Kelleher, the former CEO of Southwest Airlines, wrote a letter asking each of the company's employees to save $5 a day. A flight attendant suggested using plain, unmarked trash bags instead of paying for the bags with the airline's logo. The small idea resulted in an annual savings of $300 thousand. Another employee took the stars instead of the elevator to save electricity. At the end of the year, the company cut costs by more than 5 percent.

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