THE BLOG
05/23/2016 09:43 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

If You Want a Culture of Continuous Improvement, Create a Culture of Recognition.

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In many of the companies I have worked for they believe that you shouldn't praise people for just doing their job because that's what they get paid for.

This type of thinking is something that I just cannot subscribe to and unfortunately is much more common than it should be.

It's my firm belief that if people's salary is what we pay to get them to come to work, then it's our job as leaders to inspire them and motivate them to do a great job.

Great performance starts with recognition and the beauty of recognition is that it costs us nothing, nothing at all, and yet the payback can be significant.

Recognition lets people know that we value their contribution, that we see what they do and that their work is important to us and is appreciated. Recognition can start with something small; as Ken Blanchard says in his book Gung Ho, "if nothing else we can start by recognizing people's birthday to start a culture of recognition."

Many people have told me that we shouldn't praise mediocrity; we should only praise outstanding work.

But look at how we encourage babies who are learning to walk; their first faltering steps are met with huge rounds of encouragement.

No, they didn't just run a marathon, they took a couple of small steps and then fell, yet we cheer them; we call our partners, our friends and our parents to look at this small wonder and encourage them to do it again.

Why do we do that?

It's because we know it's their first faltering step and that with our encouragement, our support and our help they will be encouraged to try again, to try to take another step, maybe two or three until eventually they can walk and even run.

So why don't we take this approach with our teams?

Why not encourage a first faltering step? We don't need to go overboard; we can praise their effort and tell them that maybe next time it will get better. Let them know that we appreciate their effort, let them know in an encouraging way that we expect it will better next time. That we will be watching, and that we will be there to encourage them.

While I am sure that there will be many people who are sceptical about an approach like this, but it is one that I have successfully used on several occasions, and at several different companies.

At a large manufacturing company, where I worked, we started to measure the level of service that we delivered to our customers against the committed service levels.

At first, the level of service measured was low, the reports inaccurate, but at least the team were prepared to try to at least measure performance and produce the reports.

In the first month, zero percent of the services were meeting the required/agreed level and nearly all of the reports contained errors as the measurement process was new and the team was still learning.

We still gave recognition to the team; this was for taking the time and effort to create the reports and to understand the reporting process.

The next month, the number of services meeting the required level was still low. But at least all of the reports were produced, accuracy was improving significantly.

Again we provided positive feedback to the team on the increased in accuracy of the reports. This was important to us because it implied people were taking the approach seriously and wanted to improve the situation.

Over the next few months, the service quality improved with around 30 percent of services meeting the agreed service level.

For those individuals whose services met the required level, we provided positive feedback and recognition for this achievement, in reviews with their peers and their manager.

Over the next few months the percentage of services, which met the required level, rose to over 50 percent. As the bar was being raised it required more improvement to gain the recognition at this point. Individuals were only provided positive feedback for meeting the required level three months in a row.

When the first team to have all their services meet the required level for three months in a row we gave them a small bonus; this reinforced how important this was to us.

That bonus also acted as encouragement to the other teams who now looked to improve their performance until all their services were at the required level.

We continued on this path, with positive feedback and encouragement and even set the annual team targets, for which they have they received a bonus, at 80 percent of the services meeting the agreed level for the entire year.

Now that everyone had seen that improvements were possible knew what was required to improve the service and could see the reward for getting their services to the agreed level.

That year every single team achieved the target.

One team even achieved 100 percent for the entire year and in recognition of that, we provided a small additional bonus, nothing excessive just a small team event to show our appreciation.

The following year we set the target at 90 percent and again all teams met that target and overall we achieved a record level of 95 percent.

This significant improvement all started with us recognizing the team for delivering reports that showed our performance level was rock bottom and error-strewn.

But we had initiated a culture of recognition; we provided positive feedback for the small steps, constantly raising the bar for reward and recognition until we had achieved a performance level of 95 percent.

If we had decided to wait until the team had achieved 95 percent before providing reward and recognition, I believe it would never have happened.

Recognition costs us nothing, and if done correctly it can create a culture of recognition which will ultimately lead to a culture of high performance and continuous improvement.