Riding the Waves of Continuous Improvement

Hamster on a Wave

True stability results when presumed order and presumed disorder are balanced. A truly stable system expects the unexpected, is prepared to be disrupted, waits to be transformed.” ~ Tom Robbins, American Novelist

Having recently completed the five week course, or MOOC, on Exploring Personal Learning Networks, I found my way to the follow-up community, Learning and Change, hosted by Jeff Merrell and Kimberly Scott.  Already the conversation has inspired my thinking!  This week my thoughts are inspired by a post from community member Vahid Masrour.  In his post in Designing for Change, Vahid poses the questions such as:  How do we deal with the ever-evolving-organization challenge?  How can we shift to being fluid and flexible while still being manageable?  How can we cultivate innovation when our organizations are grounded in stability and predictability through processes?

And how does learning and development fit into all of this?

The connection I made as I thought about this is that much of our corporate structures and environments actually “mirrors” our education structures and environments.  Granted, both education and corporations have become more creative and innovative in the past few years.  And I’m sure we all have had that one teacher, professor, manager, or colleague who was creative and inspiring.  I know I did!  And organizations are starting to see more and more value in encouraging creativity and innovation.  But look at what our K-12 education foundation is built on – structure and process.

I’m often reminded, as a visual, of the video for Pink Floyd’s Another Brick In The Wall where students go into the “machine” as individuals and come out as duplicates, or copies, of what the system is cranking out.  Or even Supertramp’s The Logical Song.  (If you can’t tell, I like my British rock music.)  We enter the “system” coloring our trees orange, the sky purple, and the grass blue.  Then we are taught to “color inside the lines” and use the “correct colors”.  We need to be what “society” wants us to be.  We are conditioned to “think inside the box”.  So we carry this mindset with us into the workforce, where we are told to, “Think outside the box!  Be innovative!  Be creative!”  After 12-20+ years of conditioning, easier said than done.

That’s why I’m thankful for the people who managed to keep their creativity, their curiosity throughout school and into the work environment.  They have the mindset we need to push the limits and make the changes that are needed.  They have what we need in our environments to invigorate us and keep us moving forward.  And I’m thankful that I have friends and colleagues in my network with this mindset!

So going back to the question of how can we deal with the ever-changing-organization, I go a keynote speaker at the 2013 Southeast Wisconsin Learning Leaders Conference I attended earlier this year hosted at the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, WI.  Matt Levatich, COO for H-D, spoke about the four strategic pillars for the Harley Davidson company: Growth, Leadership Development, Continuous Improvement, and Sustainability.  What Matt had to say about Continuous Improvement is what inspired me the most.  What H-D has built into their culture is the mindset of continuous improvement – not managing change.

Change has a beginning and an end.  Change is about process.  And processes need to change to keep up with new discoveries and ideas in science, health, technology, and more.  When we are faced with change after change after change, many of us can get tired, frustrated, disengaged.  Also known as Change Fatigue.  But with a mindset of continuous improvement, we see the potential and possibility.  We see opportunity for making something better, for ourselves and for others.  And who doesn’t want things to be better?!  The perspective on change has…changed!

But how do we do this?  How do we shift the mindset of hundreds, even thousands, of people to look at never-ending change as continuous improvement rather than the latest change project?  And how can learning and development play a part?  There are many ways we can go about this.  But I’ll share three:

  1. Start with the Self – We shift our own mindset first.  And when we do, those around us will pick up on this.  This can be something as simple as building in affirmation rituals, reading books and articles, attending seminars, or talking with others with this mindset.
  2. Play – Play with our kids, play games, play with toys!  As L&D designers and facilitators, we can build play into classes and facilitated sessions.  I’ve used Tinker Toys many times to encourage play and demonstrate a point.
  3. Renew & Reflect – Take intentional down time.  Disconnect. Do something that reenergizes you and gives you a chance to reflect.  Reflect on what you do, see, or hear about.  Reflect on potential and possibility.

If we can just try these three things as a start, then, maybe slowly at first, the mindset may spread.  So rather than trying to boil the ocean, we toss in the pebble and let the ripples take effect.  And we can do this through learning and development.  Opening ourselves up to learning new information, new ideas, new technologies (even social technologies).  And then we help others learn, maybe casually, through our networks.  Or even formally through the sessions we design and/or facilitate.  Or somewhere in between.

I don’t have all the answers.  But I do know that much of my current mindset is a result of opening myself up to learning from the various, diverse people in my network.  Most of these people I consider true friends.  As one of those true friends just reminded me, we are constantly learning from each other.  And in times of seeming instability, even complete upheaval, our strengths in our learning and our relationships, will help us to keep our balance and embrace the changes – um, improvements – ahead.

This is just a start.  But I am reminded of a perspective I shared a couple of years ago as our organization was going through some major changes.  Stability isn’t about digging in your heals and holding your ground.  Stability is about being able to keep your balance, even picking yourself back up, as the ground beneath your shifts.  This way we can be fluid and flexible, get off the hamster wheel, and ride the waves of continuous improvement.

What are your thoughts?  What is your mindset?

Image courtesy of Flickr

11 thoughts on “Riding the Waves of Continuous Improvement

  1. Hey Jennifer! Thanks for writing this, it touches on quite a few things I’ve been considering for a while too…
    – How society/the education system pretty much crushes kids’ natural creativity. This becomes glaringly apparent I think once you have children yourself. My child is only 3 but I distinctly remember about 6 months ago, watching him play, and just forming a spontaneous friendship and making up a game with another kid he previously hadn’t met before – and reflecting on how different that is to the way we behave as adults; how much we censor our behaviour, actions, and creativity. For me, doing things like ‘the daily create’ http://tdc.ds106.us/, and participating in open online learning experiences like xplrpln (where it’s all about exploring ambiguous ideas, putting forward ‘half baked thoughts’) have really helped change my mindset on creativity, experimentation – and continuous improvement.
    – I like the concept of building a mindset of continuous improvement into the org culture, and particularly how you define this as being the opposite of organisational change. Continuous improvement goes hand in hand with a mindset of experimentation – which is essential for innovation and creativity. And it’s about not being too precious about achieving a single ‘perfect’ outcome but instead constantly iterating.

    Thanks also for those thoughts on personal action – all certainly actions worth taking.

    • Hi Tanya! I know what you mean by learning from our children! And thanks for the link! I’ll check it out. And to your last point, I’ve certainly adopted the mindset of “progress, not perfection” – however difficult that sometimes seems!

  2. Hi Jennifer thanks for your inspiring thoughts here. I like the idea of ripple effect. And continous improvement… as an addition to that, my experience is also that org can sometimes be too busy looking at last month results and/or next quarter ones. That short-termism, like all the conditionning you mention at individual level, can also be a big obstacle to change…euh sorry continous improvement. Yes to quick fixes but again facing some fears and “making friends” with them can help stay fluid and find grounding in the unknown rather than in the “we’ve been doing like this for ages so why should we change”…

    • So true, Cedric! Our natural instinct is to avoid pain. And trying something different can potentially be painful. So we become complacent. Also, so much of our current work practices come out of the manufacturing age where there were those who “managed” and those who “followed”. Thankfully in our current, knowledge worker age, we have people who aren’t afraid of trying new things and voicing new ideas. It will just take time and perseverance to reach that “tipping point”.

  3. Hi Jennifer! I appreciate your comment that “our corporate structures and environments actually ‘mirrors’ our education structures and environments.” This is no accident since our educational system in the US was constructed to provide a capable workforce. The early part of my career was spent in corporate OD/L&D before moving into higher education. My motivation for building an innovative graduate program that focuses on teaching future leaders how to thrive through ambiguity stemmed in part from my frustrations with corporate leaders who were incapable of (or unwilling to) question and change their old mindsets and persevere through complexity. This meant doing away with classes dominated by lecturing and assignments focused on regurgitating facts. Seven years ago we started using problem-based learning (PBL) to build a leadership development program, and during this same time period PBL has surged in k-12 education circles too. There is no magic bullet to solve the mindset problems you so clearly articulate, but I’m hopeful that experimentation with PBL in both our educational systems and corporate L&D will offer new ways to meet these needs.

    • Hi Kimberly! I can completely relate to what you are saying! I’ve recently started wondering about the same career move for myself – from corporate to higher education. And I think it’s great to see that even my 6th grader had a PBL class this year! We know this will take time in organizations as our “legacy” workforce retires and the newer workforce emerges. And not to make excuses, but large organizations can’t turn on a dime. As we used to say in the Navy, it takes over 3 miles to turn an aircraft carrier. But it CAN be done! 🙂

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  5. I have to admit, I’ve been considering the same (possible move long term from corporate to higher ed / research – though I realise there are endemic issues with higher ed and ‘change’ too- and higher ed institutions are becoming ever more corporatised…but open ed is certainly a very exciting devt – not to mention the types of teaching/learning practices that Kimberley & Jeff are promoting: very inspiring!).Thanks Kimberley for the backstory on how and why you moved from corporate to higher ed – very interesting and food for thought.

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