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Continuous Improvement: It’s Not Just for Processes Anymore

How do you get better at something? Slowly, steadily, continually…Right?

Continuous Improvement” is a mantra for just about all areas of our businesses and — if we’re ambitious — our lives. Companies make huge investments in everything from lean manufacturing to agile development methodologies knowing that the best way to make things better is through steady and continual improvement. We reengineer our business processes to have feedback loops so we can learn from what we have done and build on those learnings.

Learn. Improve. Repeat.

Pictogram of two rowers rowing towards the left
Public Domain. Source: commons.wikimedia.org.

It’s a no-brainer, right? The relentless pursuit of perfection, as Lexus would say. Everything is fair game. Nothing is exempt from the beneficent outcomes of continuous improvement…

Well, almost nothing. Amongst the vast array of products, services, and processes that make up our corporate existences, there is one facet of our organizational lives that is surprisingly devoid of this spirit of continuous improvement. For some reason, the way we actually work together — our relationships, the way we communicate, and the way we interact — is rarely targeted for continuous improvement.

Let’s change that.

Human beings are complex. And organizations of ‘n’ people are nth degree complex, with almost countless relationships and interdependencies. It gets complicated really fast. Without deliberate attention to the way we work together, misunderstandings abound and are frequently amplified. In the absence of intent and effort, the way we communicate and the way we work together ends up being based on presumptions and projections from our own styles and preferences. This is a disservice to ourselves, our colleagues, and sells short the potential of our organization. We are missing out on the opportunity to create vibrant1 vibrant: adjective – infused with energy and enthusiasm. organizations and a rich web of mutually beneficial relationships.

Our teams — and the relationships therein — are prime candidates for the lens of continuous improvement. Take every opportunity to discuss and agree upon how you can best work together as a team.

Create a Group Identity: Who do we want to be?

As I mentioned in The Year of the Strong Organization, the first step in creating a vibrant, highly functional team is to have that team agree that they want to work together. Take the time to verbalize your willingness and desire to work together. Try it! Look a colleague in the eye and say, “I want to work with you.”

Once you are committed to working together, the next step is to decide who you want to be as a team. How do you want to be known? How do you want to be seen?

For example, do you, as a team, want to be seen as creative? Caring? Brilliant? Out to change the world? How do you want to be seen?

Build A Better Culture: How do we want to be together?

Once everyone is committed to wanting to work together, the rest is just details in learning how to work together. How do we want to be together?

As with most continuous improvement processes, look for “defects” — those hiccups in relationships or team dynamics that could have been handled better. Talk about it. Seek to understand the other person’s perspective and agree on a way to work together. Learn. Improve. Repeat.

Interpersonal relationships can be delicate. The complex interactions between contrasting styles and preferences can be difficult to diagnose to the untrained eye. Don’t hesitate to bring in a facilitator or a coach who can help fine tune the team dynamics while you focus on building a great team and delighting your customers.

Highly functional organizations — those infused with energy and enthusiasm — are not beyond reach. As Patrick Lencioni says in Five Dysfunction of a Team, “If you could get all the people in an organization rowing in the same direction, you could dominate any industry, in any market, against any competition, at any time.”

The good news is that you can get everyone rowing in the same direction. Let’s apply the same rigor and passion to the deep, interpersonal connections we have with one another that we apply to inanimate processes. Let’s continuously explore — and improve — how we want to work together.

Do you want to commit to creating better working relationships? Coaching — or even team coaching — may be just the ticket. It’s never too late to become a better leader and build a better team.

Originally published on January 31, 2014 as “Team Dynamics: Learn, Improve, Repeat.” Revised and updated on June 9, 2020.

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