A culture of continuous improvement is crucial to organizational performance and survival. Just ask Richard Aubut, CEO of South Shore Hospital, the leading regional provider of healthcare in southeastern Massachusetts. “We don’t know what changes will be coming with healthcare reform and other changes in our industry,” he told me recently. “But we do know we need to build the capability to deal with whatever does. That’s why we’ve added continuous improvement to our cultural pillars.”
Yet most reports, such as John Kotter’s classic Harvard Business Review article “Leading Change: Why Transformation Effort Fail,” show that few attempts at fundamental change are very successful, a few are utter failures, and most fall somewhere in between, with a distinct tilt to failure. Discussions about process improvement failures sprang up recently on two different LinkedIn groups I participate in, and most members cited a lack of leadership from the top as the primary reason. A few said it was because people didn’t follow the methodology (e.g., Six Sigma or Lean) the right way.
Ironically, few of these discussions pursued this issue much further to get at the root cause. Why aren’t leaders on board? Why doesn’t culture change? How do you change culture?
But one of the people in the conversation stood out to me, with a more thoughtful approach: John Ryan, a continuous improvement coordinator at Zeus, Inc., a South Carolina-based manufacturer of polymer tubing. When I contacted him directly, he told me there is a simple yet highly effective tool for getting at the root cause of process performance problems: asking the question “Why.”
Why do cultures resist change?
Because they are successful.
Why are they successful?
Because we hold onto practices that make us successful until they become habitual.
Why don’t we try new practices?
Because it takes energy to learn a new habit.
Why do we need habits?
Because to compete successfully, we must able to instantly respond to the environment; we cannot take the time to think every time before acting. The faster we can react, the more likely we are to survive when confronted with danger.
When do we create new habits?
When we confront a situation where existing habits don’t work, we conclude a new habit is needed, and we have enough time to create one.
Why does it take a long time to change habits?
Because if we change immediately every time we encounter a new environment, we will constantly spend energy on changing — energy that we need to survive. And whenever we encounter a new environment, our first reaction is fear. It has to be fear because before we take any action, we must ensure that we can survive. We use this fear to keep us safe.
If fear of change is the root cause of failures to create a culture of continuous improvement, as W. Edwards Deming (the father of the quality movement) famously said, “Drive out fear. No one can put in his best performance unless he feels secure” — what are the counter-measures? What are the most effective ways to embrace fear of change? I see three:
1. Show respect to the people whose work will change by getting them involved in defining the improvements.
People resist change that is imposed on them. But if they help define the changes, they will own them. As Peter Hunter, a former naval officer and management consultant, has said, “People hate being told what to do. It is human nature to avoid doing what we have been told. … Instead find out what people want and give it to them, or give them the reason why they can’t have it. Both answers are equally valuable because they both let the individuals know that their opinion has been listened to and is valued.”
2. Welcome failure in experiments of new ways of working as a way to learn; remove the downside risks and provide upside.
Experiments allow us to learn and improve. As described in my previous post, “Get Your Worker to Disrupt Their Jobs,” you should commit to your employees that they will stay employed if they suggest process change. You should also give them some of the upside from making those changes — profit sharing and promotions. And by training them, you can demonstrate your commitment to their development.
3. Hire self-starters who are committed to your mission.
Your employees will embrace change that furthers the mission of the organization if they view the value of that change to the customer as greater than the pain of change. For example, the 58,000 employees of the Mayo Clinic, a worldwide leader in medical services, are more likely to embrace changes to their work if it’s clear that it makes the patient’s experience better. It starts with recruitment. On the jobs section of the Mayo Clinic website, the first thing you see is “Working at Mayo Clinic is making a difference. It’s providing the highest quality patient care by placing the needs of patients first.”
Organizations with cultures that value continuous improvement are far better at changing their processes and staying competitive. Yet most organizations that make a run at continuous improvement fail to make it stick because of fear. As Zeus Inc.’s John Ryan points out, “You should embrace fear for the tremendous benefit it provides.”
Questions: What do you see as the root cause of failures to institute continuous improvement? How have you seen workers overcome their fear of work changes?
This article first appeared in the Harvard Business Review and has been lightly edited for this publication.