A lot of leaders will often ask about goals. What should they strive to achieve, and where should they be seeing themselves in a week, a month, or a year? In many organisations this can be a very complicated question. Above and beyond enabling their people to do what needs to be done for customers, what should they be striving for?

In a well-built continuous improvement environment, where things are ever-evolving to benefit customers by fixing issues, building trust, and meeting demands more directly, many leaders believe that keeping the machine running is the end-game. Except that this isn’t really continuous improvement… it’s actually more like the status quo.

You see, even in the best environments the job is never done. Continuous improvement should be defined as exactly that; always striving to improve the work and the way you deliver.

Which leads us to an ultimate goal: work yourself out of the job!

All the tasks

If we imagine what a perfect organisation might look like – from a customer’s perspective – we would come up with a customer getting exactly what they wanted, how they wanted it, every time. There would be enough flexibility in the organisational system for the servicing of all different shapes and sizes of customers, and there would be no waste in the system, at all.

Think of the perfect Toyota-Lean example; a customer would be able to order a car exactly the way they wanted it, and it pop right out of a machine, there and then. The ultimate example of a Lean machine!

One thing is critically important to keep in mind when thinking about that example; while automation and digitisation is fundamental to it, many systems can improve without it, or with less of it. A great example of this is local council services. Everyone loves to hate the way in which local and municipal councils want us to deal with them. Nowadays, many of their services have moved online, and that automation and digitisation has certainly not borne more efficient services.

My own council ‘encourages’ interactions that are digital in nature. Pet registration renewal comes to mind as a classic screw-up: you have to enter the same information multiple times, go through page after page of repetition, only to be given a confirmation that your request has been lodged – not completed! I asked the council worker when I had to go in for another unrelated matter, and they said the online requests land in an email box that they must sort through, which takes time.

It’s a perfect example of how automation and digitisation has made it harder for customers, and for staff, to navigate an organisation.

The problem often originates from automation of tasks without first understanding how they are contributing to the delivery of service overall. Automating everything might be automating a great big chunk of waste. Sure, you might save some time automating things, or you might not (the council did not)… but the task itself might be a wasteful step in the process to begin with. Why keep doing it at all?

All the jobs

Improvement isn’t limited to tasks or functions… it can happen anywhere.

An area that can nearly always be improved upon in nearly any organisation is layers of management. Some organisations might have 8, 10, or even 12 layers removed between front-line staff and the board. How the board is expected to make appropriate decisions that directly influence delivery to customers being so far removed from them is beyond any reasonable logic.

Such a management structure is often a sign of huge waste within an organisation. All of those people will be doing things that contribute to delivery in some way or another… but they are also doing other things that don’t contribute at all. Time management of staff, reviews, reports, et cetera. All these things do absolutely nothing for the customers.

Imagine how many resources you could have to work on customer problems if you improved on those layers!

Points of failure

One thing that often happens in organisations is the improvement of optimisation of a process, but that improvement was championed or developed by one person, or one team. There could be a lot of intellectual property wrapped up in one person’s mind, or only one expert available to do a particular job. This not only represents a huge organisational risk, it also presents a huge customer risk. Being hit by the proverbial bus could be the least of the organisation’s worries, as losing all of that knowledge could mean an inability to service customers.

Continuous improvement does not have to lead to a smaller organisation, and in fact can lead to a larger one. Making sure that you’ve got sufficient stability built into your organisational system – including in your people – is a huge step forward. After all, if you’re looking to repurpose staff that were freed up via prior improvement initiatives, the best place to use them and benefit your customers, and grow your business, would be to have more people understand and do ‘the things’.

Broadening the base of your work does not work against you or your staff ‘working themselves out of a job’… it actually works towards it. The more people you have working on improving things in your business, the better off your business should be. After all, if everyone is focused on improvement of customer outcomes, it’s also highly likely you’re going to have less problems. From there, your people will have more time to spend with more customers, doing the things they want to do… everyone wins! 🙂

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