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Now is the Hour – the need for Continuous Improvement in the 'New Normal'

The end of the world as we know it

As I write this we are still in the grip of the greatest health pandemic for over a hundred years, which has resulted in the greatest social upheaval since the Second World War, and is almost certainly going to result in the deepest recession, with the most unfathomable recovery path in living memory.

There’s nothing like opening up with something that will lift the spirits of your audience!

However, that’s where we are right now, and whilst many businesses have operated to some degree right through the crisis, it is clear that all businesses will now be encouraged to begin to return to ‘normal’, whatever that is!

It is of course important that the wheels of industry, business and commerce do indeed begin to grind back in to gear, so that the products and services that fuel our economy, and so everyone’s livelihood, can flow once again to the customers who need them. This is being progressively encouraged by government, as the furlough scheme put in place to preserve jobs is first pared back (in that employers will soon be expected to make a contribution to their employees being kept in employment, but not actually working), while everyone works out what the future will actually look like, and ultimately, before the end of the year, withdrawn all together.

So, given the massive complexities facing employers in deciding who comes back when, how they will be accommodated safely, how they will collaborate safely (both physically and electronically) and then how will they be able to undertake their jobs like before, given this array of new conditions, are truly huge.

On top of that, will there actually be enough for everyone to do immediately? The doom-mongers are already predicting mass redundancies as the expected short-term drop in customer demand will result in businesses having excess labour, at least for a while.

Given this less-than-ideal scenario, how can anyone find the time to turn their attention to continuous improvement?

Well, I would like to offer the following thoughts, which challenge the argument that this is a bad time to be engaging your employees in continuous improvement.

Back down that same old road

Firstly, I feel there has never been a time when it is more important to be engaging in continuous improvement, because in many instances those very conditions are going to force a major re-think about how every job can be organized so that it can be both productive and safe. Now, given the pressure under which businesses are making those decisions and arrangements, with all of the uncertainty that still exists, what do you reckon the chances are that, first shot, they will establish effective, efficient productive systems.

In my estimation, little to none!

Now that might seem a little harsh, but don’t forget, I have been in the world of work for over fifty years, and have been delivering continuous improvement training and consultancy for the last twelve of them, and I’m here to tell you, there are all-too-few highly efficient systems in place that have been crafted and established in days far less pressurized than exist today! In fact, the current situation may lead to senior people magnifying the mistakes of old, because in trying to make workplaces safe, effective and productive, with all of the difficulties the ‘new normal’ will present, they may once again forget to turn to the very people who actually do the jobs, the employees.

Therefore, if we can safely assume that under the intense pressure of returning hundreds of thousands of people back to the workplace mistakes will be made, workplaces won’t be set up in the best, safest, most productive ways possible, we would argue that it has never been more important to engage the ‘eighth waste’, the human potential of your people to let them have a say in crafting the future.

The Burning Platform

The wonderful Joseph Kotter refers in his teachings to what he calls ‘the burning platform’ to visualize how all business will feel when they know they need to change. They are afraid to change, stuck in their ways, have a ‘we’ve always done it that way’ mentality, but they KNOW they have to or they will perish……just like someone standing on the edge of a burning platform, who are afraid to jump into the unknown, but they know if they don’t they will be consumed by the flames.

In other words, it’s difficult to get people to consider change unless they can see a crisis, something that gives them no choice but to embrace change or die. Many, many clients have told me that the problem is that they haven’t been able to point to such a crisis to motivate their people into engaging in continuous improvement and so to find the best way to get things done, and it’s this that is holding back their aspirations to make continuous improvement a part of the culture.

Well, we’ve got a crisis now!

It is important that this crisis is used to motivate employees and that it doesn’t have the opposite effect, as nobody operates and engages when gripped by fear, however if it is used to highlight how important it is to make the return to work as smooth, effective and safe as possible, then this is perhaps the golden opportunity that so many have waited for, which is to focus everyone’s attention on getting things right, because the repercussions of not doing so should be obvious to everyone.

No time like the present

One other factor is clear, and this may be considered as a blessing or a curse, depending upon your own specific situation or view of the world.

Whilst many people have been able to work from home during the Lockdown, and may well be able to do so in the future, many, many more simply haven’t been able to, and never could, and so bringing this mass of humanity back into the workplace is going to be a challenge, not least because everyone expects there will be a short-term dip in demand.

Now of course, the knee-jerk reaction in such circumstances is to reduce headcount to meet ‘todays’ demand, and whilst we understand the need for businesses to return to profitability rapidly, you might pause to consider a couple of things.

Firstly, if you let people go now, and then demand recovers (which most economic experts feel it will) then at some point you will have to find some more people, with all of the attendant costs of doing so including recruitment, induction, training, loss of productivity and churn (not everyone engaged will ‘work out’). Unless you are sure there is no chance of a foreseeable return to customer demand similar to pre-pandemic levels, then wouldn’t it be better to keep the people you have, with all of their skills, experience and familiarity of your business, if you possibly?

Secondly, the other major excuse I’m offered as to why it has been impossible to involve the workforce in continuous improvement activities, is that we simply don’t have the time. There are customers to be kept happy, orders to get out, deliveries to be made…..and all of this when I already don’t have sufficient people to get it done. Weeeell, often this is true, but I’m afraid that I often suspect it’s not, and the “my people can’t be spared to be involved in continuous improvement” stance often hides deeper reasons, which may surround managerial insecurities about being seen to have excess labour or a fear of being upstaged or shown up by lesser mortals.

However, this current situation, with the ability to draft people back into the workplace in a graduated fashion may just provide the ideal conditions to allow people to engage in improvement activities without managers feeling that they are being stripped of resource that will result in failure to hit output targets.

Also, it’s more than probable that your people may uncover improvements and savings that exceed what they would have earned for you making your products or delivering your services…this does happen regularly. This would justify their retention, even if the furlough scheme is removed before full customer demand is restored, and the identified savings and improvements in performance would then be felt every single day.

Home, sweet home

Having said that many people will have to return to the workplace to be able to do what they do, this pandemic will have demonstrated that many more can operate effectively from home, and on this long road to recovery their ability to do so will prove invaluable in helping to keep workplaces safe through social distancing, and indeed may well provide viable permanent work options that will change the way that businesses operate forever.

This has of course been facilitated by the rise of electronic collaboration platforms such as Microsoft Teams, which have allowed people in different locations to meet, talk and share information in a way that has never existed before. They say that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ and never has this been more evident in the mass-adoption of such platforms.

This will provide innumerable positives for both employer and employee in terms of cost, efficiency, and people movement, not to mention the environmental benefits of possibly millions of fewer people on the roads at the busiest times of the day. However, there will be downsides, one of which is that it will physically distance people from people, and as we are, after all a social race, this will be challenging. Also, it will of course be more difficult to engage in the kind of continuous improvement programmes that are tethered by traditional boards, documents, and meetings.

We at Unleash have not only been using Teams to collaborate in this way ourselves, but recognizing the potential there is to harness that technology to create continuous improvement systems that can be accessed and operated by people in different parts of a business, or indeed different parts of the world, we have been developing the means to make it possible for anyone, anywhere to engage, whether at work, at home or in the field, so anything is possible, and we will be giving far more information on these exciting opportunities in forthcoming articles.

We hope this article will just make you consider some of the positives that there might be as you work towards creating your new normal, whatever that looks like.


If you are committed to achieving business excellence, and found this article enjoyable and thought-provoking, and if you’d like all future copies sent straight to your inbox or if you would like to join our Unleash Collaboration Zone on Microsoft Teams where you can share your experiences and thoughts in light of the current challenging situation, then please contact us.



Image source: unsplash.com

Published at: 04-06-2020