Cursor Curated
20th March 2023

The power of employee empowerment in continuous improvement

It all began with coffee beans...

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Cursor Curated Issue 13
Daniel Westlake

It all began with coffee beans. One morning, a member of our team headed to their local supermarket to pick up a meal deal. Two out of three items down, they ventured for the store’s coffee machine, only to discover it was out of beans.

“I’m afraid it’s not our coffee machine – it belongs to a separate shop.” Said shop was not open at the time and our team member was left standing with an incomplete basket. He offered an alternative – to use the supermarket’s coffee machine – only to be told staff were not trained to use it.

Finally, another shop assistant managed to refill the beans, but the machine was out of milk, too. Our shopper was happy with a black coffee, but suggested refilling the milk, without much success. He was left with the impression that the supermarket’s staff were less than fussed about customer service.

Of course, this is not the issue, and the fault lies entirely with the organisation:

  • Are employees underpaid and unmotivated to help?
  • Did the supermarket not train them properly?
  • Are the organisational systems in place constraining their autonomy?

The continuous improvement framework

This tale highlights the need for a cultural shift in the workplace – specifically, focusing on continuous improvement. Though it might sound like a software concept, it’s actually an automotive one.

It dates back to post-World War II Japan, wherein the country was undergoing a period of growth. The Toyota Production System offered key methodology around this in the 40s and 50s – focusing on “kaizen” (continuous improvement). Kaizen involves all employees, removing waste in production lines and improving company culture in the boardroom.

Continuous improvement methodologies in software delivery

The benefits of continuous improvement in software include faster delivery of new features, higher quality, and better customer satisfaction. We have seen continuous improvement techniques adapted for software over the years. For instance, today we have iterative development, testing and feedback loops. Agile and Scrum are great examples of this in the software development environment.

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We also have tools at our disposal like Git and Selenium, helping us work simultaneously and catch bugs early. But we can take these principles beyond software – encouraging a continuous improvement culture through support.

Engage and support every employee

We can take heed of the mistakes of others when we think about employee engagement. This is essential to a continuous improvement strategy. But poor organisational cultures can let people down.

Take the Volkswagen emissions scandal. In 2015, the Environment Protection Agency issued the car manufacturer a notice of violation of the Clean Air Act. Volkswagen was found guilty of installing illegal software in their diesel vehicles, and it was revealed that their cars were 40 times more toxic than they had claimed. As a result, their stock prices plummeted to a third of their value in the following days.

But this is a fault of people, not technology. Volkswagen’s management structure left middle management teams to make key decisions – but it was the senior teams who had to face the music. Indeed, Martin Winterkorn may not have even known who was truly responsible for the greenwashing.

This could have been avoided had employees felt safe to raise concerns. By empowering our teams, we can spot problems, propose solutions and make changes. In return, we see improved employee performance. This was evidenced in a 2022 study into ‘perceived organisational support’.

Leverage technology to drive cross-functional communication

Engaging employees starts with keeping them informed – encouraging a culture of collaboration and feedback. Indeed, this even concerns stakeholders like customers. Fostering user-first software development means taking on customers’ feedback, and feeling confident to share this among teams.

We can also learn from Agile cultures. Within these, open and transparent communication lets all team members reflect on their work and identify room for improvement. Tech facilitates this with real-time collaboration from anywhere, for example:

  • Videoconferencing tools
  • Project management dashboards
  • Instant messaging
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Let’s not forget the chance to learn, too. Document management, training portals and learning management systems help teams develop their skills. In turn, they feel more engaged and ready to improve.

The takeaway: organisations have to listen and take action

With all the best technology in the world, nobody can improve if they don’t listen to their teams. We need to keep a broad mind when testing our new ideas or listening to alternative points of view. Then we can reinvest this into process improvement, creating an environment that values and encourages feedback.

Change is inevitable, and is key to any continuous improvement culture. We must be receptive to change and recognise the benefits, taking on diverse viewpoints. If we listen to our employees and take action based on their feedback and ideas, we will always strive for better.

Take note, supermarket chains – your whole organisation could benefit. Not just your coffee.

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