Engagement and Continuous Improvement-a Little Help?

I’m looking into formally re-entering the world of continuous improvement. Because fit is so important for employer and employee alike, I’ve been giving this a hard look. I have a solid background in CI but also essential to the decision on my end: how does this fit with my passion for this thing called engagement and the pursuit of “the Greater Good” …making an impact, leaving a legacy on the big stage?

Here are some points I’m pondering, please ponder along with me. I’d appreciate the help.

One of my core personal principles is that balance between people and process is essential. Yet, the “people” element is short-sheeted more often than not. Why do improvement efforts fail? Why do “change” initiatives fizzle? If there is an identifiable root cause the failure mode is too often people-related. You simply cannot achieve optimal hard results without dealing with all that “soft” people stuff beyond giving it a little politically correct lip service.

I’ve taught TQM (Total Quality Management) in college for over twenty years. Just for fun I compared the first text I used with the latest.

1994: Scherkenbach, The Deming Route to Quality and Productivity This text is built around the Fourteen Points but leans very heavily on SPC, which I was also teaching at the time for Maytag. I was already seeing the need for “softer” stuff and this was not my text of choice but the school’s.

2014: Evans, Quality and Performance Excellence The author is a professor at the University of Cincinnati (danger-academic?) and spent 11 years on the Board of Examiners and Panel of Judges for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. Belay that “danger”! I corresponded a little with Prof. Evans and got some deeper insights behind the book. Thank you, Professor—you provided a very solid and well-balanced examination of TOTAL quality management.

In a conversation last week with the Iowa Quality Center’s director, Gary Nesteby, we talked about the Center’s shifting focus. Their emphasis has historically been on Six Sigma, ISO and the Baldrige Criteria. Fairly recently, Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge – the psychology of CI and systems thinking—has become another key piece for the Center. We also discussed engagement, as I was at the Center to do a short piece on engagement for membership. There is room in the Center’s curriculum for engagement-related workshops. A very cool and significant shift!

The “three-legged stool” is about as over-used as the pyramid for diagramming all kinds of stuff. No surprise—it works here too. The three legs of the CI stool: eliminate waste, minimize variation, engage people. If leg #3 is too short or non-existent, or if the connecting rungs are not glued or are non-existent the stool will not support that big butt in the seat, which happens to be the Customer.

Standard rules of engagement apply to CI: what is it, why is it important, why should I care? Followed with what should we do? How are we doing? If you don’t answer those questions and reach out to engage the real experts, you won’t get past the first turn, race over.

An interesting question: where does CI stop and organization development start? What is the right scope when you set out to improve stuff? Limited to the production process? Or does scope need to be much larger than that? What about the systems used to manage the business, including but not limited to production? What about leader style? Procedures, policies, practices? What about the culture? How fully does the company’s leadership and culture support an approach to CI that recognizes the importance of balance? How well are the seven S’s from that classic mid-90’s McKinsey model interrelated? This is a bit large—a topic for another post.

Conclusion for now: continuous improvement needs more practitioners who are balanced between people and process. This could be a solid move.


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