For the People, With the People: Reimagining Continuous Improvement

Over the past several years, countless restaurants and retailers have developed processes that allow customers to buy online and pick up in-store or curbside. Still, the COVID-19 pandemic pushed these existing capabilities to the limit. According to Adobe Analytics, the number of orders placed online and picked up at retail stores surged 208 percent between April 1 and April 20 compared to a year earlier. To address the increased demand, companies pivoted rapidly. For example, Noodles & Company worked quickly to iron out its processes and offer a curbside option at more than 75 percent of its restaurants—all within a couple of weeks following the outbreak of the pandemic.

We saw a similar surge in demand for virtualization across the workplace more generally. Companies in most industries found existing remote work policies under significant stress when faced with much, if not all, of their workforces suddenly working from home. Amid this upheaval, many organizations have discovered that some processes are inefficient, lack the ability to scale and adapt, and must be optimized continuously to help the business remain competitive in a volatile world.

Disruptors are ever-present, whether it be a new internal process, nimble competitor, surprise cybersecurity threat, or natural disaster. The COVID-19 crisis is the most recent reminder of this reality. Any of these disruptors can cause an organization to lose its footing when factors once considered constant are in flux. The business must be ready and able to pivot on a moment’s notice, which requires an organizational muscle of agility and relentless improvement.

Continuous improvement is all about moving the organization to higher levels of performance and operational resiliency on an ongoing basis by making processes as predictable and capable as possible. It commands a flattening of hierarchies and mutual discovery that breaks down functional silos. In times of disruption, continuous improvement can help organizations by uncovering the underlying causes of issues. It involves asking critical questions including:

  • What are the best options given the current scenario?
  • Where are the failure points in the process, and how can we remove them?
  • How can we flex to minimize risk at every step along the way to ensure ongoing, residual improvements?
  • How can we redeploy and enable people to be most productive?

Continuously optimizing processes in a people-centric workplace requires a close partnership between people and technology. This partnership also means avoiding the inclination to use technology to replace people altogether. Consider, for example, how process mining techniques take all of the data, system logs, and audit trails inside a system to create a visual of what a process actually looks like, going beyond the boxes and lines in a Visio diagram. Yet, process mining is only the starting point. People play a crucial role in analyzing the data and extracting insights to improve the process. From there, only people can put those insights into action and ensure that processes are serving their intended purposes.

Organizations can apply the principles of design thinking in engaging their employees to accelerate continuous process improvement:

  • Empathy: Today’s reality dictates that organizational priorities will inevitably shift and be revisited. As a result, processes must also be built to adapt. People are more willing to adopt changes if leaders are transparent and empathetic. Empathy involves asking the right questions, listening for important themes, and objectively observing workplace behaviors to uncover people’s needs and pain points related to existing processes and proposed changes. It is a skill and mindset that leaders can learn, model, and cultivate on their teams. By seeking to understand employee challenges surrounding existing processes, leaders are likely to better understand the root causes of bottlenecks. The “five whys” method—repeating the question “Why?” five times—can help you reframe the challenge from a more employee-centric perspective, giving way to new opportunities to optimize processes.
  • Co-Creation: When you seek employees’ input on continuous improvement efforts, they feel invested in the process and are more likely to assume ownership of outcomes. Indeed, 93 percent of leaders in our research say that involving employees in the design of change solutions leads to higher levels of adoption. While all the disruption created by COVID-19 may have increased our tolerance for change, change fatigue remains a risk. Employees will be less likely to embrace continuous improvement if they’re not empowered to help own the path forward.  
  • Iteration: Leaders need to embrace continuous improvement as a way of life and help make it the norm for employees. People need to be able to pivot and adjust so that the organization can constantly evolve and improve. People, of course, are creatures of habit, so leaders need to help employees become more comfortable working in a fluid environment. Iterative improvements could take the form of periodic or weekly small adjustments to everyday routines that are backed by adequate support structures. Explaining the “why” and “why now” behind the need to change helps secure employee buy-in for iterative ways of working. At the same time, leaders should model a “fail-fast, fail-forward” mentality, empowering teams to take informed risks related to process improvement, while adapting and growing from any learnings gleaned along the way.

To thrive in an unpredictable world, organizations must constantly adapt and relentlessly improve the processes that drive their core operations. By applying the tenets of design thinking, you can nurture the right mindset across teams—one that balances risk mitigation with a fail-fast mentality, and one in which all employees understand their role in effecting ongoing change. By engaging people around a continuous improvement mindset, you’ll be better equipped to learn from failures and adapt key processes, in turn, accelerating your company’s progression towards its strategic aspirations.