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

  • You can't encourage and support what you don't know is happening. The most interesting and useful local change and improvement initiatives rarely make it into reports or formal channels. That may be because they're "illegally" breaking corporate rules, deviating from the standard process, or failing to follow the official plan. It may be because local champions or teams (skunk works) don't realize the significance of their innovation to the rest of the organization or a potential new market.

  • So get out and poke around. Find out what's happening in all the nooks and crannies of your organization. Look for people and teams who are solving problems in creative new ways. Then, fulfill the critical leadership role Walt Disney was talking about when he said; "I am like a bee, buzzing from one part of Disney to another spreading the pollen of creativity and stimulation."

  • Don't let consultants or staff professionals impose a top-down organization improvement plan on everyone. One size does not fit all. However, everybody can't go off doing their own thing. There needs to be some organization-wide coordination and consistency in your improvement effort. Another part of senior management's leadership role involves clarifying what is mandatory and what's optional in your change and improvement effort. The organization's destination and priorities shouldn't be optional. But the best route to get there should be open for exploration, customization and local ownership (the most critical element of building commitment).

  • One non-negotiable is that all improvement activities focus outward. All changes either serve an external customer or partner, serve somebody who is or will lead to new markets and the filling of unmet needs. Changes that make internal life easier but reduce customer service, quality, or innovation aren't improvements. Current and potential customers and/or the partners serving them should be at the center of, or key members on, the local learning teams. They need to be "mucking around" to find new and improved ways of producing, delivering, or supporting the products and services.

  • Demonstrations or pilot projects are powerful learning, change, and improvement tools. Opening a new plant, branch, division, or office is a great opportunity to set up a "greenfield site". This is where you can test new structures, tools, and techniques (such as self-managed teams or horizontal management).
    A highly effective leader can have twenty years of rich learning and experience. But many mediocre performers have one year of experience multiplied twenty times. The same learning disability afflicts organizations that haven't developed the systems and practices for transferring and communicating the rich learning that comes from local initiatives.

  • You need an internal "best practices and good tries" system, clearinghouse, or network. You should have Intranet sites, frequent meetings, active voice or email systems, team visits, fairs, or other share and compare forums. Measurement systems and feedback loops should make the results every team is getting highly visible and widely available to everyone. Your education, training, and communication activities should continuously keep people throughout your organization in touch with what's working and what isn't.

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© Copyright 2001 The CLEMMER Group

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