Change Fatigue, Psychological Safety and the Leadership Void: Why Most CI Initiatives Don’t Last

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Continuous improvement has been around for decades, and yet there are few examples of organiza- tions that have successfully created a lasting culture of problem solving, learning, and improvement. Many books, blogs, and workshops are available on these topics, and there is no shortage of resources on the tools and techniques of Lean process improvement. We understand the mechanics of improvement, but stumble when it comes to connecting with people so they engage and participate.

What are the factors that hold people back from investing themselves in a culture of continuous im- provement? For many years, I have served as a coach, trainer, and consultant to numerous organizations across many industries and have consistently encoun- tered three key barriers to creating a new normal, which includes daily problem solving, employee initia- tive, and higher levels of participation.

In a CI culture, improving the way we work is more important than doing the work! Most people spend their day doing their work and view improvement as an optional “when I have time” activity.

Change Fatigue

Over the years, multiple programs have been rolled out (e.g. Lean, Six Sigma, Operational Excel- lence, Agile, TPS, Total Quality, etc.) with prom- ises of making work less chaotic, creating work- life balance, and making things better. While these initiatives are well-intentioned, over time people be- come exhausted with the new “flavor of the month” and no longer get excited about the envisioned benefits of process improvement.

Psychological Safety

People need to feel comfortable sharing their thoughts, expressing when things are not working, discussing problems, asking for help, making suggestions, and even disagreeing with the way work is done. It is not easy speaking up when one feels it is risky to disagree with their boss, question current policy, or simply ask why something is done a certain way. The freedom to ask “What if ?” is not something most of us are com- fortable doing when we are not certain where the con- versation will lead.

Here’s the key: it is precisely this level of safety we all require before we will step out and speak up. The engagement and participation that is so crucial to a CI cul- ture will only develop in an environment of psychological safety and nowhere else. Improvement requires learning, learning requires experimenting, and experiments seek to better understand cause and effect. The process starts by asking questions. But no one will ask questions or speak up if they feel it is unsafe.

Leadership Void

Leaders, managers, and supervisors set the tone of the workplace and must model the behaviors necessary for a CI culture to grow. Yet all too often, they unintentionally do the very opposite. Leading with Respect is a collection of specific leader behaviors that create an authentic con- nection with people to develop a background of mutual trust. Trust is the basis of all relationships. It is the glue that makes a team a team.

Building a great organization requires effective leader- ship. A key element that is often misunderstood is what it means to lead with respect. This involves awareness of a leader’s focus and intention and how well the leader con- nects with people to create an environment of mutual trust and sustained high levels of performance. This is accom- plished through the application of seven core practices. We’ll explore why leading with respect is essential in a suc- cessful transformation, what respect looks like in practice, the seven core practices, and how they impact people to drive lasting change for the better.

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