Management Articles


Improvement Planning Pathways and Pitfalls

By: Jim Clemmer

Jim Clemmer is an international keynote speaker, workshop leader, author, and president of The CLEMMER Group, a North American network of organization, team, and personal improvement consultants based in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. His other bestsellers include Firing on All Cylinders: The Service/Quality System for High-Powered Corporate Performance, and his most recent book, Growing the Distance: Timeless Principles for Personal, Career, and Family Success. His web site is

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"Unfortunately, it's the rare company that understands the importance of informal improvisation let alone respects it as a legitimate business activity. In most cases, ideas generated by employees in the course of their work are lost to the organization as a whole. . . . This important source of organizational learning is either ignored or suppressed."
    John Seely Brown, Research that Reinvents the Corporation
  • Celebrate, publicize, recognize, honor, thank, applaud, and otherwise encourage champions and local teams who take initiative to change and improve their part of the world.

  • Managers need to uncover and coordinate local improvement initiatives to ensure they are pointed in the right direction and focused on the goals and priorities that really matter. You don't want teams working flat out to make changes that hurt some other part of the organization or are trivial and meaningless. That calls for an improvement process or infrastructure.

  • But be careful that it doesn't turn into a stifling bureaucracy that kills any initiatives that aren't part of the official plan. One way to avoid that is to make sure the infrastructure is run by operational teams and managers, not staff support professionals (they should act as consultants to management).

  • Look for the existing leaders and champions who are making improvements and changes. Shape your improvement plan and process by building on their energy and experience. Since change champions won't be covering all areas as completely as possible, they are also the logical starting point for making the changes and improvements that will better round out and balance your long term effort.

  • Develop change and improvement momentum by building around the champions who are most likely to make the effort succeed. They will help to bring the others on side. They are also the ones you and everyone else can learn the most from. But don't try to impose their successful approaches on others. Ownership and personalization are the keys to local adaptation of changes and improvements. Sell, persuade, educate, and communicate.

  • A key measure of managers and teams should be how much they've changed, improved, and innovated. Continuous personal improvement and the ability to live with and manage paradox should be a central factor in hiring and promoting managers. Unimproving managers pay lip service (sometimes even passionate lip service) to the importance of change and improvement. But it stops there.

  • Give them education, skill development, coaching, a role in the improvement planning process, and your own personal improvement example. If they still aren't personally improving and leading change initiatives, you can't afford to keep them. Leaving them in a management position will cost you the commitment and trust of everybody who's watching to see how serious you really are. Help these stagnant managers find career opportunities elsewhere.

  • Discuss with your management team how your successful change champions (some of whom will be present) have emerged and been supported in the past. What can you learn from those experiences? How does your bureaucracy suppress or drive out emerging champions? How can you ensure that change champions get the mentoring, sponsorship, and management support they need to buck the system? What do your champions think?

  • If you're not a senior manager, your organization change and improvement choices are: (1) do nothing but complain and hope "they" smarten up; (2) quit; (3) make as many changes as you can in your own area. Help others to change and try to influence the system. In other words, act like a leader!

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© Copyright 2001 The CLEMMER Group

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