Consistent Improvement: Four Ways to Take Your Team from Good to Great

“No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking.”— Voltaire, French Enlightenment writer and philosopher.

Consistent Improvement:  Four Ways to Take Your Team from Good to Great by Laura StackWhile perfection may not be possible, there’s no reason not to strive for it—as long as you don’t focus so tightly on that goal you can’t actually accomplish anything. Instead, by continually improving your systems, processes, and productivity over time, you’ll go from mediocre to superior.

I realize some readers might look askance at this idea, since just about every CEO in America has read Jim Collins’ 2001 book Good to Great. If upgrading from good to great were easy, then why do everyday companies still outnumber the great by a factor of hundreds to one? Surely, if the process worked, we’d have seen a flood of great companies by now—and clearly, we haven’t.

But the problem lies with the implementation. Often, leadership fails because they can’t see their greatest flaws. It’s not just a matter of not seeing the forest for the trees; often, they can’t see their flaws because they aren’t humble enough to accept them. So let’s look at four ways you can get over yourself and apply the power of consistent improvement to your team.

1. Set your ego and personal needs aside. “Le etat c’est moi!” (“I am the state!”) might have worked for King Louis XIV of France, but you are not your company, your division, or your team. You lead and often represent them, and you have an obligation to provide vision and guidance in all things. So when you make a decision, don’t assume that because it works for you, it works for the whole team. A bonus structure awarding you $100,000 if your team reaches certain goals may seem great to you, but it means nothing unless the rest of the team enjoys bonuses as well. Urging them to work harder so you can get your bonus will just irritate them, which won’t contribute to the productivity increase you want.

When your ego controls the team’s direction, the team goes nowhere, because your team members don’t feel valued. Instead, step up to the plate in your role as visionary and facilitator, lead by example, and take everything and everyone into account before you leap—keeping in mind that, after all, the French monarchy ended at the guillotine just a few generations after Louis made his famous statement.

2. Model yourself after the best in your field. You really can’t go wrong doing this, though you certainly don’t want to directly imitate or plagiarize your top competitors. Just ask yourself: Why do your consumers prefer your competitors’ products or services, if indeed they do? What can you learn from what they’ve done right, as well as what they’ve done wrong? How can you go them one better by using their own methods against them?

The U.S. Postal Service directly copied many of the business practices of Wells Fargo—originally a generalized financial services and express company—including the corner mailboxes still common in some parts of the country and the Pony Express. Wells Fargo lost at the postal game only when government legislation made the USPS the sole legal postal service in the region.

3. Carefully pick a direction and stick with it. You can’t become the expert in your field if won’t stay the course long enough to become an expert in your field. Anyone remember the Warner-Lambert Company? It began as a consumer products company with healthcare leanings. From 1979 until 1998, when Pfizer absorbed it, Warner-Lambert changed direction abruptly and completely at least five times, prompting three major restructurings under three different CEOs. All this did was repeatedly kill its forward momentum, eventually killing the company.

Many observers predicted ignominious ruin when Kimberly-Clark, maker of Kleenex facial tissues, began divesting itself of its profitable business paper mills in favor of personal care products in 1971. But CEO Darwin Smith knew what he was doing, and by the mid-1990s Kimberly-Clark had become the #1 manufacturer of consumer paper products in America, beating out consumer giant Proctor and Gamble in most categories and swallowing up Scott Paper.

4. Focus on what you do best. Personally, I don’t bother to ski even though I live in the Rockies and could go nearly every day if I wanted. I find it a pain—both physically and logistically—and I’m not good at it, so I stopped trying. Do the same with your less productive tasks that don’t provide much value: put all your team’s energy into what you do well instead. It’s always better to go from good to great to awesome at something, rather than spending the same effort to go from abysmal to mediocre to sufficient.

Every team leader should have a “Not To Do” or “Stop Doing” list outlining what they refuse to expend the team’s energy and resources on. It may contain things as simple as the items you’ve decided to delegate, or a refusal to take part in company politics.

Many other ingredients contribute to the good-to-great recipe, from a willingness to work hard, to inspiration and innovation, simple, open communication, and encouraging employee empowerment. The tips I’ve outlined here will help you to explore and break new ground, so you can give your best to anyone who depends on you and your team.

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