Skip to main content

Author: Joakim Ahlström

Don’t Blame the Bike if You Want to Succeed with Continuous Improvement

Have you ever watched a child learning to ride a bike? Who (or rather what) gets the blame when things don’t go the way the child wants? The bike! The child might even argue that it’s a stupid bike and it’s impossible to ride.

But what has this to do with organizations wanting to succeed with continuous improvement? Grownups at work don’t behave like that, do they? No, there is a crucial difference. The child will have to learn riding the bike they have while many organizations choose to invest in a new bike with more features in the naive belief that it will make their employees better cyclists. The child eventually realizes that the problem has nothing to do with the bike but the child’s attitude and ability while the people of the organization continue to live in denial. In the end, the child learns to ride the bike – the approach leads to the desired outcome. The organization is soon cluttered with lots of old and useless “bikes” and for each new “bike” it becomes more difficult to learn how to ride – the approach leads away from the desired outcome.

What does the child have that the organization lacks? A person, who in a loving way and though it might hurt, lets the child know that there is nothing wrong with the bike. In many organizations, on the other hand, we are often quick to agree when someone blames the bike. When the target of blame is the bike, we don’t have to approach the real reasons for the undesired results – our own shortcomings. The child, however, in spite of the initial reluctance, will have to confront their fear and inadequacy. That’s when the miracle of learning, increased self-confidence, and improved ability happens.

So what can you do to reclaim the passion for riding a “bike” in an organization with a distorted self-image and a bike that feels too big? First, throw out all fancy and advanced racing bikes and dust off the tricycle. In other words, get back to the very basics of continuous improvement. Question every single method, routine, meeting, and tool and get rid of everything that does not serve a purpose. “We’ve always done it this way” is no longer a valid excuse for holding on to old junk!
It is equally important to rid your collective self-image of historical debris. It has taken a lot of damage from all failed attempts. Each time a new bike has been rolled in, instead of the real problems being addressed, the subconscious conviction that you will never succeed has been strengthened. It’s time to stop running away from that conviction in search of better bikes. Instead, you need to process your failures and get rid of your unproductive and distorted convictions about yourselves. Otherwise, you will never dare to jump on the tricycle. Your fear of failure will make you stand on the side claiming it’s beneath you to ride on one of those.

When you’re back at the starting point, your improvement journey can truly begin. To make the most of it, you as a leader and coach should continuously modify your approach based on where you are on the journey. Someone who is learning to ride the bike is motivated by easy-to-reach targets and the highlighting of their progress and improved ability. A professional is motivated by bigger challenges, on the other hand, and wants the coach to visualize the improvement potential and point out the details he or she needs to correct. If you were to approach a beginner the way an experienced person wants you to, or vice versa, you would completely ruin the fun and kill the desire to learn.

Finally, a repetition of the most important point; Never solely blame the bike! Always look both outwards and inwards. As often as you question the method, you should ask what more you need to understand about yourself to get the results you want. When you do, you truly begin to build the people that will build your business!

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

Are Your Managers Bottlenecks in Your Improvement Process?

For managers, time is a scarce commodity. Actually, it’s equally scarce for everyone, but I start off this way to show that I know how tough it is to be a manager. When I meet managers of various kinds – CEOs, division managers, middle managers, indeed all sorts of managers – I take their lack of time into account and let them know that there’s only one thing they need to do to develop a culture of continuous improvement. This is what I tell them:

“Ask each of your employees to always bring one improvement idea to your recurring (weekly or monthly) meetings.”

I have stolen (with pride) this advice from management guru Peter Drucker, but I usually don’t reveal that. Instead, I often get to listen to their objections. The first one usually sounds like this:

“That’s not a good idea! Judging by the suggestions we normally get, it would only result in a heap of suggestions we would be forced to reject. And that would kill creativity.”

“What creativity?” I get the urge to ask, but I don’t. Instead, I ask them what they think is the reason for getting only “bad ideas.” Most managers realize that it does not have to do with the intelligence of their employees. There’s something else missing: clear expectations of how everyone can contribute to the development of the business. My definition of an improvement is a solved problem, and my definition of a problem is the gap between where you are and where you want to be. A “bad improvement idea” is a sign of poor knowledge about how someone in his or her role can help the company achieve its objectives. And who is responsible for breaking down and creating commitment to the objectives of a company?
I also let them know that they don’t have to be afraid to reject a portion of the suggestions. In the organizations I have supported, we have had an implementation rate of 50 percent as our lower limit, and as long as at least half of all ideas are implemented and their results are highlighted, I have never seen a negative effect on creativity. Though most managers follow this reasoning, many deliver their next objection straight away:

“Even if I rejected half I wouldn’t have the time. If all my colleagues gave me one improvement idea at every meeting, all my time would be consumed by trying to understand their suggestions and deciding on which ones to implement.”

This objection confirms that I have come to an organization where managers are the bottlenecks in the improvement process. “It’s your colleagues who should make the decisions, not you,” I explain. I also clarify that a high-performing improvement process is driven by all employees of the organization. Instead of making decisions in matters where the employees themselves are better suited, the manager should act as a coach and make sure everyone knows where they are headed, support those who have a hard time advancing and visualize progress to increase motivation.

“But what if they take a lot of stupid decisions or change things they do not have the authority to change?”

While I appreciate the objections turning into questions, I feel the penny should have dropped by now. “Well, wouldn’t that be great!” I usually respond. The manager doesn’t agree. Then I explain that the only difference from before would be that stupid decisions and people exceeding their authority are now coming to the manager’s attention. Now you will be able to see where there’s a need for leadership, where there’s a need to clarify the priorities of the business, and in which situations the expertise of certain persons should be sought. In other words, you know that your leadership has been successful when your colleagues tell you about valuable and already implemented improvement ideas at your meetings.

“But you said that you know I don’t have much time. How can you expect me to have the time to break down and communicate objectives, support those who don’t move forward, visualize progress and clarify roles and responsibilities?”

“What else should you do? Isn’t that precisely the job of the manager?” To start working with continuous improvement is like gradually revealing the need for leadership in an organization. The fact that the improvement potential of your leadership becomes visible can be interpreted in two ways – as a painful truth that you continue to deny or as an opportunity to grow as an individual and organization.

It is not until the improvement process is running that you will clearly see what your colleagues consider to be your expectations of them. Only when you see how things really are will you get the chance to improve. The question is, are you ready to take on the leadership challenge?

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.