Leading with a people-first focus: lessons from continuous improvement

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I’m sure you’ve heard talk of how leadership looks different when you are in a “people first” organization. The idea that people are important, that your business most likely cannot exist if you don’t have people in it, are just a few of the concepts you may have heard.

Well, in a world where everything feels uncertain, businesses are stressed in new ways and at new levels. Leadership can quickly find itself tempted to forget that people first is the way to not only survive but thrive. The temptation, of course, will be to put profits ahead of people, but let me share a few insights learned from my years of experience with continuous improvement.

People are one of the most valuable assets a business will ever have. They are one of the only assets that can continually appreciate in value versus depreciate. They can learn, evolve and pivot as needed. They can see and think ahead to catch problems on the horizon or suggest new ideas and opportunities.

In the world of continuous improvement and a people-centric business, investing in people should never be a question: it should be a way of life. Leaders are constantly working to develop their people to implement the core principles behind their continuous improvement philosophy.

Interestingly enough, all four of the key priorities of one of the most renowned continuous improvement philosophies, the Toyota Production System, could be summarized in one key point: people first!

The four key philosophies of a successful continuous improvement system are:

  1. Customer first
  2. People are the most important
  3. Kaizen is a way of life
  4. Shop floor focus

Let me explain what each of these points mean:

Customer first: You may be thinking, of course, in any business we should be thinking about the end customer at all times. That’s true; however, it also takes on another meaning when you are talking about continuous improvement.

In any work process, there are handoffs. Once you have completed your work, it is handed off to the next person to carry it forward. Whenever this happens, you are handing off to your “customer.” It is your job to ensure you have given them exactly what they need to be successful in whatever comes next. When you don’t, you are handing off a problem. You must always think about your customer.

People are the most important: As I mentioned earlier, people are an appreciating asset. They have capabilities no machine ever will. We must invest in and develop our people to have a continuous improvement system that thrives.

Kaizen is a way of life: Kaizen means continuous improvement. So, continuous improvement is a way of life. We must always be thinking about how we can continue to grow and develop our system to increase capacity while removing human struggle out of the processes.

Shop floor focus: Go to Gemba. Have you ever heard that phrase? It means to walk and know your shop floor. No matter what type of work you do, wherever your work happens is your shop floor.

Are you spending time with your people understanding the work where it happens? Are the problems and struggles being highlighted in ways that problems can be solved, capacity can be increased and work can evolve for the better?

If you do not spend time with your people on the shop floor, the likelihood of being able to solve the problems in your business is greatly decreased. Those who do the work every day are the ones who will help you see down the path of opportunity and help remove the barriers in the way to your success.

When you stop and think about the four key philosophies of continuous improvement, do you see how they all point back to people? You cannot have a successful system without people. You cannot have a successful system without investing in the development of people.

When the world is quickly changing around us and businesses are faced with questions about how to survive and move forward, I challenge you to think about how the core philosophies from the world of continuous improvement can help shape your plan moving forward.

Remember, people are resilient. They can learn, evolve and pivot like no machine. Whether it is upskilling or reskilling, investing in your people, listening to their ideas from the frontlines of the work on how to evolve and pivot today is critical. Deploy a shop floor focus and adopt the Kaizen way of life.

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