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Article No.: 13-3, March 1, 2013

Article Title: A Diverse Workforce Positively Impacts Continuous Improvement

Author: Linda Gravett, Ph.D., SPHR, CEQC

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The concept of Continuous Improvement is one of excellence; that is, finding ways to enhance employees’ productivity and contributions to increase the company’s “bottom line”.  Leveraging diversity takes this concept one step further – enhancing productivity and contributions by developing each individual’s unique skills, talents, and ability to contribute.  The goal is to leverage 100% of each and every employee’s skills and talents, 100% of the time.  Organizations that succeed in integrating the concepts of Continuous Improvement and Leveraging Diversity have customer-focused outcomes that provide an improved chance of survival in today’s competitive and turbulent global marketplace.
One company I’ve worked with, a 100-employee bakery in the south, developed a diversity initiative in tandem with Continuous Improvement efforts, with great success.  Their efforts began as a component of the bakery’s strategic plan, which was designed to address the dynamic advances in the industry’s technology and ever-escalating customer demands for quality and taste.  The primary emphasis has been on changing the culture by pushing decision-making down to the floor level and addressing process improvement via cross-functional teams.
If this idea is one you’ve been considering, I want to offer a caveat:  this process requires skill building for employees and supervisors.  Employees should be exposed to statistical process control, brainstorming techniques such as affinity diagramming and nominal group technique, and consensus building within the context of diverse teams.  Individuals who learn how to put aside their individual positions, respect the insights of their team members, and search out win-win solutions to meeting customer needs contribute the most.
In this environment, supervisors must learn to intervene in the process improvement cycle only when called upon as experts to provide a history of past practices or technical knowledge.  Initiatives are most successful when supervisors let team members learn, take calculated risks, make mistakes, and ultimately make contributions not even the employees thought they could make.  This is a far cry from the “command and control” type of approach that’s unfortunately still found in many of today’s organizations.
The key ingredients for the integration of Continuous Improvement and the bakery’s diversity efforts have been:

  •  A Mission Statement that drives the organization’s strategy and objectives
  •   Publication of the Mission Statement and discussion about how the Mission relates to each employee’s role
  • An objective, consistently followed performance management system that rewards team involvement
  • Management education around ways to leverage the talents and skills of each and every individual within the organization
  • Recognition and celebration of successes

Within the cross functional process improvement teams, individual members have learned not to stereotype or assume that others do or do not have skills and abilities.  In one initial team meeting, the team was discussing roles such as recorder, team leader, and timekeeper.  One of the male team members said, “Marie can be the recorder – women make better secretaries.”  Marie assured the team that she did not have good record-keeping skills and wasn’t interested in serving in that capacity.  However, Bill, an 18-year employee who stands about six feet tall and has the hands of a quarterback said, “I know how to use a laptop – I’ll be the recorder.”  Much to many team members’ amazement, Bill is an excellent recorder whose fingers fly across the keyboard!
If your continuous improvement efforts are aligned with diversity efforts, one supports the other to ensure success with both initiatives. 

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