Grand Aspirations

Aim for perfection and never stop working

by Susan Gorveatte

Your employees may be asking, "Are we there yet?" After talking about continuous improvement for decades, some organizations are experiencing fatigue. But when things look good or even great in an organization, there is still opportunity for growth and augmentation.

Organizations challenged with fatigue often wonder, "When continuous improvement is always expected, how do we know when we’re ‘there’?"

The constant flow of continuous improvement paints a picture of the Grand Canyon in my head. So vast, beautiful and complex—yet never complete. Every day, the Colorado River and other forces of nature cut through the canyon and continue to shape and change its landscape.

Just as nature slowly strips away the old, worn riverbed and exposes new soil and rock, organizations can peel away layers of inefficiency to expose creativity and innovation that will shape the organization’s future.

Recently, I had the privilege of working with a small, family-owned business that did just that. This organization was a hidden gem to begin with, much like the view from the Grand Canyon that sneaks up on you as you approach the edge.

The firm’s workplace culture, in particular, was inspiring. I stood in awe as I met the happy employees and thought, "Is this real?" Yes, it was.

This business had built a solid foundation based on a culture of care, which can be difficult for organizations to establish. After reviewing its processes and procedures, however, and implementing an effective quality management system, caught the continuous improvement bug—big time.

Change comes gradually

Like the gradual formation of the Grand Canyon, it didn’t happen all at once. After initial certification, my client began to critically assess all the small ways its business operated.

Each meticulous review resulted in incremental changes that affected the overall performance of the organization, changing its landscape forever.

One particular item the organization started tracking was its banking fees. By updating its own procedures to more current practices, it saved tens of thousands of dollars over a single review period in banking fees alone.

Another small change was altering the products used in the maintenance of its fleet vehicles to extend lubricant drain intervals and reduce fuel use, which led to less down time and saved thousands of dollars in maintenance and fuel costs over one year.

Although changes in an organization can often affect employee culture, the firm’s employees remained just as happy because great care was taken to ensure the correct changes were made at the right pace.

In the employees’ own words, "[The company] retained its humanity, and its reputation as a good place to work and a good company to do business with." The view from where they stood was just as grand.

When my clients stand in awe of their ISO 9001 certificate and think, "Wow, we have come a long way," I strive to remind them, "Yes, and there is more to do."

Certification is the first step onto the ledge of the canyon; there are many more small steps to take over time to make the organization as close to perfect as possible. And yes, there will always be more changes—there is no "done."

Fitting into the context

As stable as a quality system appears to be, it is important for an organization to understand that there are external forces that affect it. Over time, these forces—which make up the context of the organization—must be managed and improved so the quality system continues to positively shape the landscape of the organization. This will ensure that customers, or visitors, continue to return for years and are always left saying, "Wow, this organization is great!"

In cases like the family-run business, external forces such as economic pressures in a small community, supplier concerns, and employee loss can negatively affect the organization.

By looking past older processes to expose new improvement initiatives, an organization can combat some of the negative impacts of these forces and actually use them to positively affect organizational strategy and improve the long-term view.

Learning how to think critically and be unafraid of change helped my client see more than the scenery that was in front of it. Improving your organization’s quality system through small, paced changes is how an organization can grow from good to great—and maybe even grand.

Susan Gorveatte is president of Gorveatte Consulting Inc. in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. She has a bachelor’s degree in business administration and management from St. Mary’s University in Halifax and is a DalTech Continuing Education-certified total quality and productivity, and business process re-engineering professional.

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