Challenge the Status Quo to Achieve Continuous Improvement

By on December 18, 2019
Businesspeople meeting in a conference room

Mary was a relatively new employee in the accounting department of a company that ran barges on our inland rivers. She spent the majority of her days processing invoices.

I was facilitating a training series with her company called “Kaizen Thinking” during which we encourage employees to spot various forms of waste. Following one of the “Kaizen Thinking” discussions, Mary questioned why her company had been charging $500 for a very popular service provided for their customers.

At the next session she told the group, “I think we could charge $750 for this service and it wouldn’t impact sales.”

The VP of marketing thought about her advice, raised the price of the service to $750 and, as Mary had predicted, it had no impact on sales. It did, however, have a major impact on income. In one year, this company made an additional $500,000 based on the suggestion of an employee who was rarely asked for her opinion.

In a later meeting with the company’s executive leadership group, the discussion turned to Mary’s suggestion. The leadership team questioned, “How could a junior employee identify a waste in pricing our services that we never saw?”

One of them said, “We didn’t find it because we never challenged the status quo. Mary did.”

The company’s CEO replied, “What we’ve learned from this is that we can learn a lot from listening to and respecting the ideas of all employees.”

Their CEO clearly stated what the two most important lessons learned from this moment were:

  1. The status quo needs to be regularly challenged. That’s the only way continuous improvement can happen.
  2. There’s a lot to be learned from all employees.

And how should the leadership team act on what they’ve learned? One simple and powerful tool they could use is called a “Gemba Walk.”

The Japanese term “Gemba” means “actual place” and taking a Gemba Walk means to go where the organization’s products are made or services are delivered and converse with the front-line employees who perform the work. The two primary goals of these short discussions are to encourage candor by showing respect for what the employees are saying and to learn more about the work they do.

Members of a leadership team do the Gemba Walk to learn and not to lecture. There is a lot to be gained by seeing things from a worker’s perspective and constantly challenging the status quo.

Does your organization need guidance in implementing powerful continuous improvement practices? Our experienced associates can help. Learn more about our business solutions and custom training services at stlcc.edu/corporate.

About George Friesen

George Friesen serves as Business Practice Leader - Lean Manufacturing for the Workforce Solutions Group of St. Louis Community College. He has led the College's Lean business practice area since 2000. Prior to joining the College, George worked for Maritz Performance Improvement Company. Over the past 35 years, he has served a wide variety of Fortune 500 companies, specializing during the past eleven years in Lean Manufacturing, focusing especially on the 5S System, Lean leadership and thinking processes, Value Stream Mapping, and Lean team building. George is a graduate of Washington University (AB), Webster University (MA), and United States Air Force Flight Training.

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