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The Unspoken Key to Improvement Success, Part 2

Business improvement initiatives and process improvement efforts work because people adopt new ways of doing things. The key to success is to focus on people and behavior.

By ALAN NICOL, Executive Member, AlanNicolSolutions LLC

This is part two of a two-part piece. Part one can be found here.

Another example for discussion: I was a manager for an engineering design team and it was performance review time. I had one employee who neglected one objective altogether, and I was obligated to reduce his merit reward accordingly. The process for documenting and recording this occurrence worked very conveniently for the management staff and for the human resources (HR) function, but not so well for the employee.

I followed the process very strictly, and the employee was the last person to find out. As you can guess, and as I should have, he was humiliated and outraged that the management and HR teams knew about it and had already decided the fate of his salary before he even found out or had an opportunity to present his argument. He left the company shortly after, and our business lost a very good engineer.

From that experience on, I refused, openly, to follow that particular process. I always addressed my performance evaluation and merit recommendations with my employees first. Yes, this was disagreeable with HR and with the next level of management, because it made things inconvenient if my recommendations or findings were refuted. I was careful to warn my employees that it could happen.

I was given a talking to about it at one point in time. I recounted my experience and pointed out that my employees trusted me, and frankly, the process was better when it was done this way. I also pointed out that the process was there to serve the employees, not management or HR. The customer of the process, ultimately, was the employee. Lastly, I admitted that I deliberately did not follow the process, but challenged my leaders to explain where I had done anything unethical or wrong.

I never heard another word about it. In fact, my manager at the time agreed to support my decision after the meeting was over, and many of my peers opted to follow suit because they, too, felt the conundrum of doing what was right by their employees vs. doing what the process dictated.

This is an example of a process and the right thing being at odds. The process was built to protect the business and to prevent employees from being treated unfairly by managers. Unfortunately, it did not take into account the feelings of the employees if the process was followed. It lost focus on whom it was supposed to serve, and it inadvertently drove unfortunate behavior, perceptions and responses.

If you want to truly drive improvement and business initiative success, then learn to focus your insights and attention on the behaviors, not the process. When you plan a change, ask and answer the question, “What behaviors are we looking for?” Don’t just think about them. Write them down in clear terms for each step of the process and for the whole process.

Digital media is cheap and easy these days; leverage it. Get out of your comfort zone and produce a role-play video of the proper behavior, and make that video part of the instruction. Demonstrate the behavior; don’t just show a process map. It also helps if you think there is a behavior that people might be inclined to adopt based on past performances; demonstrate it as what not to do. Also make it clear what is not acceptable. It’s a digital video version of the is/is-not process analysis tool.

In terms of learning how to have an eye or a mind toward behavior instead of abstract process art, here are a few of the questions I find myself asking when I am trying to do the same. I offer them up as inspiration or a starting point:

  1. Whom does this process or initiative serve?
  2. Explain to me why this is the best way for everyone involved.
  3. Prove to me that your decision is right for the business.
  4. What does it look like when a person does that?
  5. Why is that easier or better for the person doing it?
  6. Why would a person do it that way?
  7. How will the person doing that feel?
  8. How will a person respond to that?
  9. How will you determine right from wrong?

As you start to make a habit of thinking behavior instead of abstract art, you will find yourself naturally adopting certain questions that spur the correct thoughts for your own analysis. Here is my challenge for you. Start the exercise by examining the improvement you are currently doing, or the one you just did. Reevaluate it based on behavior. Look for the communication, the understanding or the opportunity that was missed, and fix it. You will see a difference.

Almost all of the improvement training from every flavor across every industry teaches us a methodology using diagrams and maps. They provide tools and vocabulary, so we can coordinate our efforts and speak a commonly understood language. But, the part of our training that is woefully under-examined is how to focus our effort on the behavior of people.

Take your personal leadership and change implementation skills to the next level. Move your process improvement and business improvement programs to the next level. Focus on how to influence people to change the way they do things. Let all of the tools and diagrams and documents be secondary. Stop asking what the map should look like and, instead, ask what people doing the better thing looks like.

Stay wise, friends.

To read part one of this two-part series, please click here. What’s your take? Please feel free to comment below! For more information, please visit