You are here

How leaders can make improvement stick

Improvement isn’t about one-off change. High performing organisations of all sizes improve continuously, with the right leadership approaches. So how is it done?

For many organisations, the last few years have been about getting by day to day, with growth taking a back burner. But the businesses that have excelled and are coming out ahead are the ones whose leaders have helped their people adopt a proactive ‘continuous improvement mindset’.

Humans are naturally curious and crave stimulation, variation and challenge. The continuous improvement mindset means taking advantage of that. By encouraging their people to take control, think differently and drive change, the best leaders are creating sustainable initiatives that keep their teams satisfied and drive their organisation’s ambition.

Developing a ‘continuous improvement mindset’ is about empowering individuals at all levels to take on lead roles in realising your business vision. All that’s required is that you put trust in your people, supporting them with the guidance, time and resources they need to unleash their full potential. And it starts with the simple things. Reducing bureaucracy, simplifying paperwork, keeping meetings short and giving your people more control over how they manage their work can alleviate the day to day, instilling a deeper sense of responsibility and ownership in your team, while also creating more space to think big.

Continual improvement isn’t only for big businesses. Or specific sectors. Empowering people as a first step in developing ongoing creativity, innovation and improvement worked wonders for a number of Northern Ireland based dental practices, who each used the Investors in People framework to shape their growth. And what they learnt can be applied across the board. Big multinational or local micro, there’s a lot we can all learn from practices like Dental 32Monkstown Dental and DJ Maguire and Associates.

At Monkstown Dental, the management gave frontline staff the freedom to identify and implement innovative approaches that saved the practice up to 50% on lab-cost bills. The continuous improvement mindset they adopted led to a range of activity promoting the practice in the local community, increasing their patient list exponentially.

The team at Dental 32 also used a continuous improvement mindset to transform the way they work. For them it was about achieving new levels of customer service excellence and practice management. “There were certain things we wanted to address around ideal behaviours and values,” explains Dental 32 partner Claire McMullan. “If there’s a fresh approach with a third party, staff feel more engaged and enthusiastic about a change process.”
Using business development tools including the Investors in People framework, the practice looked at how to translate their vision into a reality the staff could engage with and take ownership of. By putting up a whiteboard and encouraging the team to contribute their thoughts about what they would want in an ideal practice, Claire and her business partner Robert Wallace found that the staff’s vision aligned with theirs.

“Just by getting everyone to put things up, focused their minds on how simple it was to take ideas and make them happen, think about what customer service is and what sort of care they should be providing,” Clare explains. “And what it’s really done is open dialogue. Staff are much more willing to come to us with ideas now, because they know they’ll be listened to.”

But the process has been about much more than just sharing ideas. Dental 32 also overhauled their staff meetings, streamlined their systems and introduced improvement projects that let staff use their abilities and creativity. “If you get bogged down in the everyday running of the business, jobs can become mundane and staff can become withdrawn if they’re not using their talents,” Claire concludes. “Because we’ve streamlined the processes in our business, staff can now concentrate more on broadening their jobs within the practice – so they engage with and enjoy their work more.” Which in turn is better for business.

At DJ Maguire and Associates, leader Derek Maguire captured the continuous improvement mindset succinctly when, in the depths of the recent economic downturn, he announced, “We’re not taking part in the recession!” They’ve since developed the business, created 14 new jobs and become one of the largest independent dental groups in Northern Ireland. Productivity has increased by almost 15%, and, in response to requests in their last patient survey, they’ve extended their opening hours to earlier mornings, later evenings and Saturday mornings (by August 2014 they will have increased total number of hours available by approximately 20%). The business currently has Investors in People Silver accreditation and – with continuous improvement at its heart – already has its sights set on Gold.

Of course, applying a continuous improvement mindset isn’t limited to dental practices. And it doesn’t have to feel like pulling teeth.

Whatever the shape or sector of your business, if you need to get off the hamster wheel of the day-to-day, here are five really simple, practical steps to unleashing your people’s potential: 

1. Encourage leadership at all levels. By empowering individuals – not necessarily managers – to take on lead roles in helping your organisation implement innovative approaches, you’ll deliver improved business results.

2. Promote multiskilling, job rotation and cross training. This will give your people a wider perspective and stimulate interest in other departments or areas, while giving them increased confidence and context for their work.

3. Give your employees control. It’s the first step to creating entrepreneurial characteristics in people.

4. Free people from business bureaucracy. Simplify paperwork, streamline procedures and keep meetings short and to a minimum.

5. Allow individuals more autonomy in their working day. Get them out of routine and on the right track to making decisions that benefit the organisation.

With the business landscape constantly changing, understanding how to inspire and empower your people to continually improve your business has never been more important. Supporting them to take ownership of that improvement – making it sustainable and tangible – will lead to great things.


Take this further:

Interested in continuous improvement for your business? View other useful tools and resources aimed at empowering your people and leading best practice.

Martin Rice is a practitioner with Investors in People Northern Ireland. He specialises in leadership management, people management and change management.


[1] Anon, “Beating Boredom at work.”, Professional Manager, July 2009, pp 30-32