Continuous improvement is more than just jargon

2007

As Stephen Covey once pointed out, success requires a balance between production and production capability. Yet while most companies have a senior staff eager for success, too often their focus is on production - and only production.

In contrast, while production capability receives acknowledgement, it tends to get very little space on the daily, weekly, or even monthly calendars.

How short sighted is this? Picture a racing team deciding that they don't want to take their cars off the race track to change tires or add gasoline. They focus solely on getting the most laps and getting the lead positions.

Then picture a top sales rep deciding the only way to make money is to close deals - and the best way to do that is give as many product demos as he can. He budgets no time to learn anything about the competition or the unique problems faced by prospects.

These illustrations point out foolish behaviors, but they are analogous to an all-too-common push for production while ignoring production capability. Sadly, companies are losing sales and market share because of a similarly myopic "production-only" perspective.

What's the value of taking time for "continuous improvement"? Can we really afford to halt production for planning, organizing, and training?

To answer that question let's consider the Ritz-Carlton hotel chain, which provides an average 232 hours of training per year to each employee. This is four times the average amount of training received by employees at other luxury hotel chains.

Now consider that the average luxury hotel chain has grown 1.8 percent annually over the past five years, while the Ritz-Carlton has grown an average 12.7 percent annually in that same timeframe.

That's an impressive number, but the Ritz doesn't rely only on its training. They use a time-consuming interview process to identify applicants with service-minded attitudes, they regularly recognize employees who demonstrate exceptional customer service, and they spend time with employees each day reviewing quality standards.

These activities all consume precious time, yet none of them are "production." In fact, at first glance, these activities are expenses that cost a company money.

Obviously, some business leaders prefer to steer clear of activities that look like an expense so they can focus on solely on production. Others leaders think to the next level and realize that these activities are simply investments with a huge payoff.

Most business consultants (myself included) will offer the following theories as to why some companies don't set aside time for building their production capability:

1. Management simply doesn't know how to do it. And, like with all human nature, we tend to avoid things we don't know how to do or don't do well.

2. Management fears that if they try to learn it and don't do well, they'll be embarrassed. Or, worse yet, out of a job.

3. An overwhelming myopia about production / production / production creates a belief that the company will fall permanently behind if production isn't constantly taking place.

Believe it or not, I've seen managers turn down just one hour a week for improving their managerial skills because they thought it was too much time away from overseeing production.

If you're part of management or on an executive team, please allow me to say this: Stop making the mistake of ignoring your team's production capability. Production by itself can be propped up only so long. And lip-service sessions of five minutes per month devoted to production capability is just not going to cut it. Eventually, something is going to give—and then what?

I like the quote by Horst Schulz, former CEO of the Ritz Carlton hotel chain, who said, "Unless you have 100 percent customer satisfaction, you must improve."

So, let's picture a manager - we'll call him Gordon. He wants success and he values the need for balance.

Gordon sets time aside to talk with his team members about their strengths and weaknesses. He talks with each one about what top performance means to them, and what each one must learn to improve his or her productivity.

What's more, Gordon invests in his own ability to be a good listener, effective organizer, and competent trainer by becoming a student himself. He's also discovered that "telling ain't training," and therefore simply lecturing his employees won't be enough. His training involves dialog and hands-on application centered around the employees' concerns—not Gordon's expertise.

Gordon also realizes that he must help each employee adopt a mindset of continuous improvement. He realizes that if he doesn't have 100 percent customer satisfaction, he needs to improve.

Bottom line, continuous improvement is more than just jargon. Our businesses will always do better when our calendars show an appropriate amount of time for activities to improve our production capability.

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About The Author

Dan Bobinski
Dan Bobinski

Dan Bobinski is a training specialist, author, and an accomplished keynote speaker. He's been providing management and leadership training to Fortune 500 companies as well as smaller, regional concerns for more than 20 years.