Getting better all the time?

Meeting for coffee with one of our clients last week, she talked me through how a sharp drop in sales as a result of the downturn had meant they had had to make cost cuts. That's not an unfamiliar story at the moment.

What is also common to hear though, is that from an organisational perspective, this process had turned out to be surprisingly useful. Our client found that, rather than reducing capacity to cope with the downturn, they had cut costs but could still deliver the same volume of services to customers. They had also managed to improve the quality of what they offer. This leaves them well placed when the market picks up.

They discovered that a few years of growth had resulted in: a loss of focus and discipline in managing the marketing and sales pipeline; hiring and keeping people that weren't quite right for the organisation; support services taking on a life of their own and becoming divorced from the needs of business; delivery and admin processes evolving in bizarre and increasingly complex ways; less attention paid to existing customers in the drive to pick up business from new sources.

A downturn has forced them to look hard at what they do and how they do it. In doing so, they have benefited and so have their customers. They have improved.

The economic context has provided both a reason for action but also a mandate to make valuable changes that would otherwise have been hard to push through: to strip out wasted effort, to do the same things using fewer resources, to get "more for less".

Shouldn't we keep that mindset all the time? A mindset that says "let's always keep improving". Not just in tough market conditions, or when public sector finances are contracting. Rather than accept the products, patterns of work, the processes, the policies we have now, we should be looking at how we can change things for the better.

Using somewhat older parlance, this is the search for increased productivity - a phrase that seems to have gone out of fashion a bit. Perhaps it got confused or conflated with just getting people to work more hours? In fact, sustainable productivity gains should be both more rewarding and more fun - rather than taking ten hours to do something ok, do it in brilliantly in five.

Toyota discovered the value of this philosophy in the 1970s, resulting in its relentless search for improvement through 'Lean Production'. The principles of this, adopted and adapted by Tesco and others, can be distilled as:

  • Focus on customer value
  • Design in simplicity
  • Design out chaos
  • Take an end-to-end perspective (don't look on activities in isolation but from where things start to when they reach the customer)
  • Eliminate waste
  • Prototype improvements
  • "Stop the line" (you can't improve something if it's still being used)
  • Problems are good (they help you learn)

How can you ingrain a mindset of constant improvement? To start with, leaders need to be clear on what the priorities are. And what are the priorities? How about these three to start with?

First, be crystal clear on how you deliver value to your customers/consumers (the people who pay and use your services). Can you tell the story why they should come to you?

Second, strive for the best quality you possibly can in how you serve others. It's been said a million times but it works every time.

Third, invest in the well-being of staff and the quality of their experience at work. If they're not enjoying and valuing their work, then neither will your customers. As Dr Robin Youngson in his work on safety and quality in medicine says "healthcare organisations are a mirror. The experience of people and their families seeking care is a reflection of how the organisation treats its own employees".

With these as a backdrop, the search for constant improvement can flourish - in good times and bad!

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