2. Continuous Improvement (and no “sacred cows”)
One of the first business books I read after college was Sacred Cows Make the Best Burgers (Kriegel & Brandt). I still rank this among the best books for business owners and managers.
Why? Because it makes a very important point, over and over and over again.
People (i.e., managers, decision makers, policy setters and bosses) resist change to one extent or another, for one reason or another.
We think that what worked in the last decade will always work. Heck, we think that what worked last year will work again this year. We set up certain of our programs or departments as “untouchable” or we put territorial bulldogs in charge of them. We become emotionally invested in our brain children and in our ‘firstborn’ business ideas.
The term ‘sacred cow’ refers to the status of cattle in India. They’re untouchable and protected for religious reasons, without exception. They are afforded the status almost of gods on earth, you must give way for them, starve rather than consume them, sacrifice to them and even adorn them with flowers for celebrations.
Over time, programs and departments in our businesses can assume this status. Even if the company is ‘starving’ to death, these programs, departments or persons must not be touched, changed or affected.
We’ve all been in organizations like this, where certain programs and certain people seemed to be able to do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, without consequence, without accountability and without question – even when their actions or results were significantly detrimental to the company.
To be successful in 2012, companies must renew their commitment to an old idea: continuous improvement, throughout every area of their organization.
Continuous improvement is a buzz term related to the “Total Quality Management” (or TQM) approach to leadership that gained popularity especially in the late 1980s/early 19902 (although its roots are older than that).
In the early 1990’s, I worked in a company that encouraged continuous improvement formally, through a program which rewarded those who brought good ideas (reviewed by committee) for improving the process or even conditions for their own job or for the company with the grant of the money needed to implement the change. It was rare that at least 2-3 new ideas were not accepted and implemented every month, resulting over the course of just one year in dozens of improvements throughout every area and in every department of the company.
I say, no more sacred cows. This especially resounds with me because of all the times I've been trained in a new role or otherwise been treated to some variation of the phrase, "this is the way we've always done it."
In one such role, about 10 years ago, I had taken an administrative job at the private school my children attended. Right after I started, the school had hired a consultant to help implement a capital campaign for improvements and expansion. With all the school execs (principals, board members, a few key teachers, etc.) in the room, many of whom had been there for decades, the consultant looked around the room and said, "Who do you think is the most valuable person in this process right now?"
People responded with different ideas but he said they were all wrong. Pointing at me, the low man on the totem pole (truthfully only in the room because they needed someone to take notes!) he said it was me. He said that I was the only one who'd been with the organization for less than 6 months, I was the only one whose brain had not been inducted into the groupthink that occurs after behaviors are learned and become routine. I was the one most capable of thinking creatively, because I was not yet 'trained' in the 'way they'd always done things.' Now almost 2 decades later, I've never forgotten that point.
To loose yourself from the hold of sacred cows in your company will require that you let go of preconceived ideas about what works and about how you view your company. You will need to bring in fresh eyes, survey customers, solicit employee opinions and pay attention to discontent (instead of defending yourself) from all stakeholders. You will need to be open to new ideas and actually trying new things and – gasp – worst of all, you will need to empower people to make changes that will improve their own jobs, working conditions, and processes in your company.
In the new year, commit yourself anew to this ‘old’ idea of continuous improvement in every area of your business, and your own life!