People need to get a win out of the effort they put in to change things. They need to be recognized and rewarded in the broadest sense of the word. For this to happen they need to see that they are making a difference and so does top management.

Over the past 20 years since the time W Edwards Deming (the Architect of the Japanese miracle) was coming over to England regularly to speak at conferences and to run his seminars, there have been many government initiatives and commercial consultancy programmes based on his, the Japanese and other teachings and practice. Tens of thousands of SMEs and larger organisations have tried improvement campaigns and thousands must have succeeded in some way or other. After about ten years of such programmes people would say ‘you can get improvement’ but the trick is to sustain it.

Working in the SME sector for most of the time the issues can be a bit more basic. Getting control of the business, getting improvement to happen from time to time and being creative enough to stay in the game and ahead of the competition are the issues in the SME sector, Sustainability (or not) comes later.

Recently in a successful organisation of 120 employees it came up again. There is government money around for those who wish to put employees through training to NVQ level two. The training can be free to the host organisation but it involves time out in the workplace to have formal presentations and to undertake work based projects as teams. The prospect of people being involved in such a programme is edifying and fills me full of enthusiasm. But the qualification is in Business Improvement Techniques and part of the sales pitch to the Directors stated that this will be sustainable by involving all/most of the people in the front line in looking for improvements. The programme as explained is certainly wall to wall but it does not seek as a stated objective to change the behaviour of the top team. They are informed but not involved. Nor is the sales team. So I start to question the claim of sustainability and to wonder if this sales pitch (I stress, not the programme itself) is based on a false premise.

The top team drives the business (if the top team is any good) and is in a position to forge a mission and to be the custodian of the culture, to lead the philosophy. So if we commit them, get them on board and get them to behave in a certain way, is that not the root of sustainability? Indeed if the front line does a great ‘lean’ job and also gets qualifications, this is healthy but risks being a temporary state, unless the top team creates the perpetual motion.

How should the top team behave

  • I think it is about genuine passion and belief and therefore enthusiasm coming from them and enlisting others to the same cause and motivating them to want to win and to come with ideas of how.
  • It is also about having and sharing a vision of where to take it with all of the people voiced constantly from the top
  • Then it is about dealing with information, facts on errors, failure, root causes, variability about understanding process behaviour, a very definite style of knowledge and learning gradually getting control and getting more sophisticated in planning and development
  • And it is about mechanisms, organisation of meetings, routine and rhythm, frequency and grooving. Steady progress, advancement and recognition of this company wide through good review and communication means.

W Edwards Deming said repeatedly ‘all that people want/need is to get pride and joy from work’. He also said ‘understand the process’.

Sustainability cannot be achieved without a certain set of very clear behaviours at the top AS WELL AS development of people in the front line. Research on Performance Improvement and Sustainability spanning the past 40 years is unanimous on the need for passion and intent from the top.