How can engineering managers foster a culture of innovation and continuous improvement?
Today, organizations are adopting new approaches to enhance their performance. Innovation and continuous improvement are some of the strategies yielding desirable fruits. When both processes are baked into the company culture, they enable the business to exploit new ideas and streamline the existing ones, resulting in transformational results.
Although many leaders, especially engineering managers, understand the value of fostering continuous improvement and innovation, they must learn how best to incorporate them into their teams.
Innovation is converting new ideas, knowledge and concepts into new processes, products or services that deliver customer value. It is a brilliant way of rethinking and developing new ways to meet ever-evolving customer needs.
Continuous improvement is an ongoing effort, usually small incremental steps over time aimed at enhancing all elements of an organization. It identifies opportunities for streamlining operations and reducing waste in all business processes while upholding high customer satisfaction.
The approach does not care much about the size of each step. It focuses on the likelihood that the improvements will not stop but become ongoing processes. It emphasizes the need for a steady stream of diligently executed improvements.
Innovation and continuous improvement have a common goal: to have a competitive edge, foster growth and reduce costs. As a manager, having a hybrid of both approaches is the best way to deliver exceptional results.
Through innovation, you and your team take a step back and rethink better ways to create customer value, exceed market expectations, focus on the organization’s core operations, continually eliminate waste, and accelerate time through continuous improvement.
Table of Contents
Continuous improvement steps
Continuous improvement uses a process that is repeated over and over, which leads to collaboration between team members. The cycle can be challenging, but breaking it down and taking each step at a time makes it easier to achieve the ultimate goal. Here are the five continuous improvement steps that managers should adopt:
- Define: The manager should identify the target process that requires improvement and organize and empower their team for the task ahead. As a team, they must point out the issues, concerns or opportunities and create a process roadmap.
- Identify: The team must also identify the waste, define the process requirements, and generate a list of potential improvements.
- Select: The selection phase requires the team to establish the desired performance goals, prioritize the potential solutions, select the most desirable ones, and clearly define them.
- Implement: The implementation phase entails developing an action plan to achieve the outlined goals, developing process performance metrics, and implementing as per the action plan.
- Evaluate: After the implementation phase, the team should check for feedback to determine the success level. The team must also measure progress, compare results with desirable performance goals, and choose the best corrective actions. The cycle is then repeated to define new issues and opportunities.
Challenges characterized by uncertainty and risks deliver innovations. As a result, it becomes necessary to develop a structure and methodology for developing and implementing a new product or service. As explained, an innovation process is then approached and implemented under different phases:
- Ideas: The manager and the team must start the innovation process by evaluating potential innovations and ideas to determine if they are worth the effort and resources. Through an unfulfilled customer requirement, identifying customer problems, a potential new market, or a new technical solution, the manager and the team can discover new opportunities for innovation.
- Concept: The concept phase entails an intensive analysis to gather as much information as possible. Analyzing the market and customer requirements, market potential, risks and feasibility, and framework conditions can collect all the required data to help execute idea processing.
- Solution: The solution phase entails the development of a ready-to-use solution that is market ready. The solution is built, and tests are conducted to gain comprehensive feedback. Once the solution reaches maturity, it is released into the market for implementation.
- Market: The last phase of the innovation is to take the final product to the customer. Based on the defined concept, the products are made physically available through procurement, production and logistics. The marketing channels are also activated, and sales personnel are trained to introduce the product to the customers.
Why are innovation and continuous improvement cultures important?
Continuous improvement can only yield results when it becomes part of an organization’s culture. It becomes the new norm of how things are done or, in other words, becomes part of the organization’s DNA. Here is what both strategies can do for the organization.
Excellent employee engagement
Continuous improvement and innovation give employees the basis they need to solve problems they encounter during their day-to-day operations.
Through streamlined processes and advanced strategies, employees handle challenges easily and engage with each other to find the best solution that guarantees customer satisfaction. Excellent engagement also means establishing a solid working relationship that brings workplace harmony.
Additionally, greater employee engagement results in high job satisfaction levels. Finding employees who are fully engaged with the company means that you bring powerful agents for innovation and improvement to your corner, which gives the business a competitive edge.
Reduced staff turnover
A low employee turnover is vital to an organization’s operational continuity. Employees feel valued when their opinions are considered and ideas implemented toward the common organizational goal.
As a result, engaged and satisfied employees become more loyal and give their time and talent to develop new ideas that aid in excellent customer satisfaction. It also means retaining employees and reducing the time and money that an organization would take to recruit, select, onboard and train new employees.
Excellent customer service
Through continuous improvement, an organization creates a framework that gives them a better insight into their customers’ needs and requirements. It helps the top management understand clients’ needs and the problems they encounter accessing the product or service.
Putting themselves in the customer’s shoes helps businesses create a product or service that offers value, meets customer needs, and eliminates obstacles that prevent a seamless ordering, purchase and usage of the product or service.
- High-quality products or services
As mentioned earlier, continuous improvement focuses on making minor, diligently executed improvements. It means that every organization’s process does not remain constant, but is improved gradually to become more efficient and reduce waste and operational costs while meeting the ever-evolving customer needs.
Delivering high-quality products and services leads to customer satisfaction and loyalty, thus increasing profit margins and, ultimately, leading to successful business growth.
Innovation and continuous improvement lead to reduced employee turnover. It means fewer employees quitting their jobs and reduces absenteeism. When each department has enough employees, this results in higher productivity and meeting customer needs on time.
Additionally, eliminating redundant and superfluous steps streamlines the processes and reduces throughput times, where employees can deliver more quickly, increasing productivity. Also, improved processes result in fewer errors, increasing productivity and quality levels.
Ensures a safer working place
Paying attention to processes also ensures that the workplace is safe for the employees. It enables businesses to become ethical, a trait that investors, employees and customers seek in the current business setting.
Demonstrating that you value your employees by providing a safe working environment means attracting top brains to your business, more resources, and increasing sales. It also builds your brand by showing how reputable and ethical you are.
Gives your team a voice
Fostering innovation and continuous improvement allows employees to think about ideas that benefit the customer. It breaks the monopoly that good ideas can only come from the top or specific groups of people.
Surprisingly, the best ideas can come from the company’s unlikeliest employees. When the two strategies are intertwined, they successfully bring out ideas from across the company. They give each employee a voice to share their creative ideas and help businesses discover other innovative solutions that enhance service delivery.
The role of managers in fostering an innovation and continuous improvement culture
The good news is that every employee has ideas, meaning that managers need help fostering an innovative environment. They must understand the importance of innovation, and continuous improvement is the critical component that managers should use to scale up business operations and stay ahead of the competition.
It helps managers and their teams to operate more effectively and efficiently. It enables them to refrain from settling for the status quo but have their eye on the next innovation or level of performance.
Even when things are sailing smoothly, managers and their teams should constantly look for ways to improve and grow the company. They should always find ways to work smarter. They must also innovate new ways to deliver top-notch services to their customers.
As an engineering manager, leading a successful team that efficiently develops new products, solutions and processes does not just happen. Such skills can be attained by taking an online master’s in engineering management from a reputable institution such as uOttawa. The facility helps develop engineering and STEM professionals who enter the job market with the right skills and expertise to offer exceptional service.
The engineering management degree program combines management and engineering skills to provide an industry-oriented, leadership-strengthening experience, and equip graduates with the most in-demand engineering management skills that every employer is looking for.
How managers can foster a culture of innovation and continuous improvement
Managers can push employees out of their comfort zones and motivate them to use their experience with the customer to develop new ideas to better their products and services. They can achieve this if they do the following.
Each employee has some form of creativity in them, and it is what leads to new ideas and innovation. With this in mind, managers should ensure that everyone in the team can explore their inherent creative prowess.
Creativity can be encouraged by providing an atmosphere that stimulates deep thought, having regular brainstorming sessions, and allowing for anonymous suggestions. Managers can also let each employee shine individually to encourage innovation.
Be deliberate on shared ideas
After receiving several ideas, managers should either wave them aside or absorb each one instantly. On the contrary, they should discuss the ideas more profoundly to understand how the concept developed in the employee’s mind.
By enquiring how employees came up with the idea, the problems that the idea could solve, why the idea makes sense to them, and how it will fit in the company or industry, a manager gets to understand the concept to an appreciable length and have a clear basis of whether to absorb or dismiss the idea.
Provide a safe place for ideas
As a manager, you must appreciate that no innovation is without failure. Therefore, you must provide a safe place for idea sharing and allow your employees to sink or sail. Let your team question how things are done, as it is the perfect avenue to bring new minds into finding a better solution. You must also supply them with all the resources required and provide adequate support to see the idea.
Giving them a safe place for ideas is a sure-fire way for employees to embrace future opportunities to share ideas and renew their commitment to helping drive organizational goals.
Listen more, talk less
Employees yearn to be genuinely listened to and their ideas considered. Unfortunately, managers’ time and attention in the modern workplace are constantly under pressure. Hence, they tend to talk more than they listen. In such a case, managers destroy the perfect bridge that fosters collaboration necessary for innovation and continuous improvement.
Therefore, managers should lead with questions rather than answers. They should allow employees to speak more as it encourages them to know that they have a voice that matters and that their ideas are heard and appreciated.
Approach ideas with positivity
How managers approach things matters, especially when fostering a culture of innovation and continuous improvement. When managers approach employees’ innovative ideas and creativity negatively, they automatically receive adverse outcomes, as employees look for ways to defend themselves from selfish individuals who do not appreciate their contributions.
Managers should understand that employees will not automatically be passionate about their work. To ensure that they remain excited about their jobs and come out with new ideas, managers should intentionally inspire. They should express genuine enthusiasm and positively approach each idea.
Focus on employee development
As a manager, your team is the most critical asset. Hence, you must constantly look for ways to help each member gain new skills. Through training, guidance or professional development opportunities, you empower the team to pursue personal growth, encourage innovation and unlock hidden potential.
Through employee development, a manager also shows their team that they value their skills and experience and are committed to seeing them excel personally and professionally.
The best way to boost team morale and reinforce the behavior that drives innovation culture is by recognizing and rewarding individual and team achievements. Learn to celebrate big or small gains.
Encourage employees to share their successes, but discuss the shortcomings and failures with the wins.
This move will encourage employees to leave their comfort zone, leading to a more innovative company culture.
Design a fun office culture and environment
Employees require a fun environment as it dramatically impacts their satisfaction and happiness, ultimately increasing productivity. As a manager, discover new and exciting ways to keep your team happy, such as team-building outings or conducting regular office events. Alternatively, you can design a physical workspace that encourages creativity and collaboration. For instance, having a cozy reading spot in the office could seem like a small change, but it allows creativity to flourish.
Encourage and enable collaboration
Although most innovations came from one genius from the past, the current business innovations draw on many contributions. Employees from established organizations do not do what they do because someone tells them what to do. They contribute to the processes and strategies that drive business operations. When developing products, solutions or processes, an engineering manager incorporates each team member’s ideas and coordinates their thinking to create a brilliant strategy.
Any business or organization’s main objective is to meet customer needs. However, evolving customer demands require organizations to up their game and constantly keep up with the changes. Through innovation and continuous improvement, businesses continuously improve their processes and develop new strategies to deliver customer satisfaction.
Through the top management, innovation and continuous improvement go beyond being a slogan. It becomes part of how a business operates daily. As a result, enterprises enjoy excellent employee engagement, increased turnover and high productivity, giving every employee an equal chance to bring their ideas to the table.
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