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Is your organization getting better all the time??

Most business owners would like to think that their business is always improving; however, very few people are willing to actually do the heavy lifting to create an enterprise that is systematically improving on a regular basis. In the world of manufacturing, these concepts have been around for awhile.? American consultant Edward Deming was a pioneer in? quality improvement with Japanese industry post World War II. The Japanese term kaizen has become synonymous with continues improvement and this method was popularized by Masaaki Imai in ?Kaizen: The Key to Japan?s Competitive Success.? In his book which was first published in 1986, Imai introduced the ?LEAN? philosophy to the world and shared the secrets behind the success of Toyota and other Japanese companies.

The core principle of continuous improvement is the ?self reflection? process.? This is essentially a feedback loop that requires a willingness to be brutally honest about your organization. The purpose of this process is the identification, reduction, and elimination of poor processes. Using a commonsense approach, minor improvements are continually made in small, incremental ways in the organization with a strong emphasis on the customer.

As a company successfully embraces continuous improvement then it moves from being a best practice to becoming part of the fabric of the organization. While these concepts may have originated in the manufacturing sector, they are rapidly being adopted by service businesses, particularly in health care and technology.? There is a tremendous opportunity to gain a competitive advantage by committing your company to a path of continuous improvement.

Mississippi entrepreneur Jill Beneke formed Pileum Corporation in 2002, and she has successfully built a management consulting firm by relentlessly focusing on improving her organization. Beneke worked for over twenty years in financial services, and she was Senior Vice President of the Capital Management Group for AmSouth prior to forming Pileum.? Her father was an entrepreneur as well as her husband, so it was a natural shift for Beneke to launch her own venture when the timing was right. Pileum acts as a trusted partner to companies in multiple industries to help with their information technology and their most important asset ? their data management.? Because of this critical role the company plays for its customers, Beneke and her team have to stay ahead of the constant evolution of technology and meet the real time needs of their customers.

While Pileum may not use phrases like kaizen or LEAN to describe their internal process, they are very much committed to the path of continuous improvement.? The management team and staff continually ask the question ?How can we do things better?? According to Beneke, ?our management team gets together frequently, and we are open and honest about trying to improve.? This means that we can?t be afraid to be self-critical.?? Pileum also provides a significant amount of in-house training for its employees and pays for its employees? external training and industry certifications.? Their goal as a company is to be getting better all of the time.? For Pileum, this commitment to continuous improvement has helped separate it in the marketplace and establish the company as a leading technology consulting business.? The company now has over 30 employees and services a large number of clients in the Mid-South.

If your company is not embracing the principles of continuous improvement then time is of the essence because your competition probably will be soon.? As a leader, you can demonstrate a commitment to continual improvement and set the direction of the organization.? In order to be successful, you also need buy-in of the members of your team and for them to embrace this kaizen mindset.? While dramatic changes may not occur overnight, your team will daily be embracing a way of thinking conducive for long term success.



A training document for the Department of the Army begins with the statements, ?Modern combat is complex and demanding.? We must use every training opportunity to improve soldier, leader, and unit task performance. To improve their individual and collective-task performances to meet or exceed the Army standard, soldiers and leaders must know and understand what happened or did not happen during every training event.?? The document I am referencing is a training manual on how to conduct After-action reviews (AARs).? AARs are widely used in the military.? These reviews ?identify how to correct deficiencies, sustain strengths, and focus on performance of specific mission essential tasks list training objectives.?? These AARs help everyone understand what did and did not occur and why.

AARs create a feedback loop that compares the actual output of a process with the intended outcome. It takes honesty and candor to actually make this a meaningful exercise.? Soldiers learn and remember more by participating in the AAR process than just getting a critique of their performance.? In the military, AARs are conducted either formally or more spontaneously as informal reviews.? The purpose of the AAR is not to punish or be hypercritical.? It is a powerful learning tool to improve performance.

I spend a lot of time interviewing employees of organizations.? I am shocked at how often employees tell me that they never get feedback on their performance.? To grow and learn as an organization, you have to create feedback loops.? Every organization has key events, projects, and performances that warrant taking the time to do an after-action review. Business consultant and best-selling author Peter Senge has stated, ?The Army’s After Action Review is arguably one of the most successful organizational learning methods yet devised.? ?I encourage organizations to adopt this ?habit? that has been so successful for the military.

Organizational After-Action Reviews

Organizations that seek continuous improvement can utilize AARs to engage and equip their workforce. Again, AARs are intended to focus on tasks and goals to discover why things happen.? They are not intended to judge success or failure. ?Examples of when formal AARs can be used in the workplace include after major presentations, technology changes, or launching a new service or product.? Informal AARs can also be used routinely.? For example, they can be used after a patient or customer encounter. The leader uses these opportunities to ask open ended questions and to understand why certain actions were taken. Participants are challenged to explore alternative courses of actions that would have been more effective.? Participants should also compare the results and actions with the expected standards and outcomes.

The biggest challenge to utilizing AARs in our organizations is time.? In our hectic and fast paced schedule, we rarely take time to purposely have these type learning sessions.? However, failure to do so slows our learning and can cause us to continually make the same mistakes over and over.? It is also easier to bark a reprimand at an employee than to take the time to probe his or her actions and find a better way to do things.?? Don?t let the tyranny of the urgent keep you from benefitting from this powerful tool in your organization.

Personal After-Action Reviews

John Maxwell is one of my favorite authors.? He is a prolific writer and effective speaker.?? In his book Today Matters he states, ?People create success in their lives by focusing on today. ?He emphasizes that, ?It may sound trite, but today is the only time you have.? It?s too late for yesterday and you can?t depend on tomorrow. That?s why today matters.?? I learned from reading his books about a habit he has of reviewing each day.? He has list of questions that he asks himself as he reflects on his day.? What he is really doing is having a personal AAR for each day of his life.? When you take time to reflect and learn from your daily experiences, you create a powerful virtuous loop of improvement.? I believe we create so many of our own ?potholes? in life by needlessly repeating poor habits and behaviors.? When you have a daily AAR you see these ?potholes? clearly and can learn to avoid them.

I took his concept and created my own daily list of questions to focus my reflection on my day.? I write out the answers to force myself to think through my responses.? It never takes more than five to ten minutes, but it is one of the most important things I do each day.? You can use this type of personal AAR to reflect on how you are doing on your goals and how you are living as compared to your values.? This time allows you to see your progress in developing good habits and eradicating bad ones.? Having a daily AAR is an investment of time, but one that pays large dividends.

While we might not be preparing for military battle, life and business do have significant challenges.? In order to thrive and not just survive, we need to be constantly improving individually and organizationally.? I encourage you to borrow the After-action review concept form the military and apply it in your own organization and personal life.? You won?t regret it.


Originally Published in Mississippi Medical News

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