Yorkshire Times
Weekend Edition
Patrick Onions
Knowledge Management Consultant
2:10 PM 24th September 2012

Continual Improvement: Pulling Together

Photo by toffehoff
Photo by toffehoff
Is your team pulling together? A continual improvement strategy gives direction and offers everyone an opportunity to contribute.

But how do you get everyone involved? This is the subject of the fifth article in a series about a DIY superstore (Woodlands DIY, based in Horsforth, Leeds) who revitalised their business.

The most important asset

The single most important asset in a store is its staff. That statement is not a tagline, a one-liner for the 'about' section of the website, or something to appear in the annual report. Nor does it mean that location, stock or brand are inconsequential. It is not an ideological position, nor is it meant to imply that retail staff should be paid more. Simply, the responsibility for store performance rests with its employees.

Adopting a continual improvement strategy is a powerful way to bring people together and improve team performance. Everyone aims to increase efficiency, reduce waste, boost effectiveness and learn one step at a time.

Management set the direction, assign responsibility and help staff carry out improvements. Staff work towards the common goal by spotting problems and opportunities, making small changes, reflecting on outcomes, reporting and sharing what they have discovered with others.

Start at the top

No improvement plan will work if management are not 100% committed to it. Continual improvement is no exception especially since it involves new ways of working, new roles and delegation.

Change begins at the top. Start by setting out the strategy for management, explaining continual improvement, and walking through examples of how this new approach works. Encourage managers to delegate responsibility and authority to individual staff members, and show them how to mentor and assist staff.

Explain their new management roles, such as anticipating customer needs, finding out what the competition is doing, identifying better practices, bringing new ideas to the store, choosing the right products to stock, locating better suppliers, teaching or mentoring staff to be the best, and setting standards and constantly looking forward.

Establishing a regular communication channel is also valuable. A weekly team meeting is a great opportunity for staff to raise issues, propose changes and discuss their observations. It helps with morale, coordination and providing time for reflection and planning, and gives management a moment to decide on the next weeks' improvements, review contributions and assign tasks.

How does continual improvement increase motivation?

Continual improvement demands that staff become more involved in their work. They must learn about products, review what competitors are doing, speak to customers, read about retail techniques and observe how people react to their improvements. Staff recognise the opportunity to learn and take control of their work, and can become experts and integral to store success.

Woodlands staff working together on changes
Woodlands staff working together on changes
Management benefit too, moving away from micro-managing and reacting to problems, toward looking outward and forward, setting standards and showing staff how to improve. They no longer have to sugar coat difficult policies and can focus on becoming more efficient, more proactive and less confrontational.


An example from Woodlands DIY will illustrate how this works in practice.

In the past the store manager would notice a paint spill or an untidy shelf in an aisle, find an available staff member, instruct them to clean it up, and then check on the results. Under continual improvement, individual staff members were assigned areas and the store manager set standards for appearance and performance in each area.

Mark for example was assigned the paint aisle. During the course of the day he would monitor activity there, and notice any spill within a few minutes - or his colleagues would let him know. He would immediately clean it up, make sure that the other cans were clean and then position them so they could not be bumped off.

The result of Woodlands staff pulling together
The result of Woodlands staff pulling together
Another example demonstrates the response to a competitor holding a sale. Previously, a newspaper advert would have caused the manager to review products across the store and then instruct the team to make changes.

Under continuous improvement, the manager would alert the team to the sale and each staff member would then consider an appropriate response in their area, discuss and make the necessary changes.

The final article

The final article in this series will discuss the store manual and the benefits of continuous learning.

Patrick Onions is principal consultant at The Knowledge Studio and an experienced practitioner in knowledge, information and project management. For more information visit