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We often ask if employees are ready for change. We sometimes assume that employees may feel uneasy when a goal or procedure alters, and while that may be true, before we ask if an employee is ready for change the more important question to ask first is if you, as a manager, are ready.

We know continuous operational improvement is absolutely essential in the food manufacturing industry. And continuous improvement translates to constant change.   Without this concept, companies cannot possibly make strides in a knowledge economy.  But where companies go wrong is thinking that operational improvements start with processes, when they actually start with people.

Like the character Jim Young in the 1950s-era comedy, "Father Knows Best," many of today's leaders believe they have all the answers. But, just as Jim often found by the end of the episode, he didn't always know best, and if he'd asked around — usually within his own family, he would have found the right answer sooner.

Just like Jim, today's managers need to consult with the people most directly involved in the problem or project to get the most specific and most applicable information — the employees. Employees can quickly tell us how to improve operational processes by letting us know what works and what doesn't. That information is key in figuring out how to get work done more efficiently.

But managers are frequently reluctant to open up this discourse with employees. Why?  Because they believe that when employees analyze and criticize the current systems — ones that the managers may have implemented, the managers will ultimately be blamed. Even when some managers ask for honesty, their employees can tell that the hard truth isn't really wanted. Let's face it: When you find that a process you developed is no longer good enough, it hurts.

Managers have to fight against feeling defensive once a process currently in place is no longer adequate. They also have to be open to suggestions from those whom they are used to supervising. Think about it: Wouldn't you rather find out that an experiment or process — even one near and dear to your heart — isn't working, and have a chance to fix it?

To have an effective continuous improvement process, managers can't just be open to criticism; they need to genuinely seek it out. This means creating an environment, a culture, where employees are taught and then expected to be critical thinkers and effective, yet respectful communicators. Without this environment, managers will be like the “Emperor with No Clothes,” who has trained his followers to turn a blind eye to obvious problems.

Leaders need to be willing to let go of some of their control as they empower employees to engage in the development of operational processes, to see the flaws and to recommend solutions.

Creating a culture that encourages employees to be critical thinkers and provide constructive suggestions starts from the top down. Managers have to enthusiastically and authentically cultivate this behavior on a consistent basis. Those who do will develop a partnership with their employees that helps identify and solve operational problems before too much time or money is invested in doing it the wrong way.

Once employees understand that their recommendations of changes in operations can make their jobs easier or faster, they will jump on board. With an environment that encourages them to look for improvements and teaches them how to make effective recommendations, they will be engaged in the process.

Managers, particularly those who view employee empowerment negatively because it decreases authority, may be the ones who have to do the most to catch up with the continuous improvement process.

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