Recognition is the key to continuous improvement.
If you want to create a culture of continuous improvement, then the first thing to do is to create a culture of recognition. Why do I say that? Two reasons.
First, because it works. It's an approach I have used at several companies to help drive performance improvements of between 50-500 per cent.
Secondly, and most importantly, you should start with recognition because it's so easy to do and it has zero cost associated with it. Giving people praise and saying thank you for a job well done is something that every company can do. It is an unlimited resource; you can never run out of 'good job', or 'thank you'.
Recognition is one of the most powerful motivators that there is. We are all hard-wired to not only appreciate it but to need it. Don't believe me? Then check out Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, in which one of our most basic psychological needs is Esteem, a feeling of a sense of achievement, of recognition and the respect of others.
I think the power of recognition is best stated by Dale Carnegie, who said: "People work for money but go the extra mile for recognition, praise and rewards."
It's the "going the extra mile" which is what creates that culture of continuous improvement, a culture where your teams are continually looking for opportunities to improve and push results.
Recognize efforts, not just outcomes.
So, if recognition is the key to continuous improvement, then when and what should you look to recognize to achieve the goal? This information is vital to know because it should start a lot earlier than you probably think.
A lot of companies I have worked with believe that they should only reward excellent performance or recognize great results. I disagree. Yes, we should recognize these exceptional achievements and make a big deal about them.
However, I believe that recognition starts much, much earlier than that. I think that you should begin by recognizing your teams' first efforts, their first steps on the journey, because if you only wait until people achieve the goals to celebrate, then you could be waiting a long time.
When I share this with companies, and especially HR leads, they just laugh at me.
They say I am wrong, that starting by recognizing efforts would be crazy. But then when I ask them how many great results they have achieved recently, they tell me not that many. I am not surprised.
It's at this point that I ask one of my favourite questions - "What did you do the first time your child took their first steps and then plonked down onto their bottoms?"
Like everyone else, they tell me "We cheered of course. We applauded. We videoed it. We called people to come and see it". And it's true we all do that, every parent that has ever lived.
And then I ask them "But why did you do that? It's not like they just ran a marathon or broke the 100m world record".
And every parent says the exact same thing "We did it because we wanted to encourage them to try and do it again, and again. Because that's how they learn first to walk and then learn to run, and one day, maybe, they will run a marathon or win a race".
The exact same principle should be applied to your teams.
Maybe they are not that successful today, but if you want them to be, then recognize their effort, encourage them to continue, to try again.
Recognize the progress.
Another of my favourite sayings on recognition is "what gets recognized gets repeated".
So, when we recognize people, we are not just feeding their self-esteem, we are also encouraging them to repeat their efforts, to try again and to continue and even to do better.
Now to be clear, we don't just keep recognizing the same level of effort the same way forever, no!
Just like with our children learning to walk, we should recognize those first steps and only then will we recognize the improvements. Like when they walk a little further, walk unaided, or walk across the floor without falling. The goal of the recognition is to encourage them to try again and to increase their effort.
We raise the requirement for the recognition, and as we do that, their efforts and their performance will follow as our teams seek out more recognition, which they are hard-wired to do.
If you have nothing to recognize, start small.
In his book 'Gung Ho: Turn on the People in Any Organisation' Ken Blanchard talks extensively about the power of recognition. He also said that if you feel you have nothing to celebrate in your organization, then start with celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, and even this will help to begin to get your teams more engaged and seek out more recognition.
At one company where I worked, our department was the worst-performing in the company, and there was little to shout about or celebrate. Our worst area of performance was our on-time delivery of projects which languished at 26 per cent, which was pretty lamentable.
I was tasked with helping to make improvements and get this back on track.
As I said at 26 per cent on-time delivery, there was little to cheer about, and the engagement of project managers was pretty low. There was a regular monthly review meeting which was poorly attended, the quality of the reporting was poor, and there seemed to be little to no value from the meeting, and it certainly wasn't helping make improvements.
The first thing I did when I look over the meeting was, I recognized the people who attended the review. I thanked them for showing up, even though their projects were Red, as this showed a willingness to improve. Interestingly this had an immediate impact on attendance.
Once we had people attending, I then started to thank them for the producing and sharing their reports, even though the projects were not on track having reports was a great aid to us understanding the true status and giving us an opportunity to make suggestions for improvement. This actually led to an improvement in the quality and accuracy of the reports.
These might seem like small things, but they had an impact, they got the project managers more engaged, it showed them that they were seen, and that management was interested in helping them improve.
This increased and improved visibility into the projects which gave us opportunities to identify some small wins which we could recognize. As we did that, we started to see further improvements that we could recognize, and this helped to make the PMs more open to suggestions, more open to ideas, and more willing to ask for help.
Within six months we got our on-time delivery up to over 50 per cent, which was amazing, but it was just the start and within 18 months the best on-time delivery record at 81 per cent.
But it didn't stop there, and the improvement that we saw here, and the recognition that we offered started to see improvements in other areas and within two years we were the number one department in the company on pretty much every single metric.
How did it all start?
It started with me praising people for attending a meeting where they shared how badly they were doing.
If you wait until people are successful before you praise them, then you will never create a culture of continuous improvement, and you could be waiting a long time before you celebrate your next success.
It all starts by recognizing efforts, showing your teams that you see them, that you value their efforts, encouraging them to try again, to increase their efforts, and once they start that journey, with the right sprinkling of recognition, the sky's the limit.
The PRAISE Model for Recognition
How we recognize people is just as important as what we recognize. I have found the most effective approach is to use what I call the PRAISE Model, which stands for Public Recognition Authentic Immediate Specific Enthusiastic.
We praise in public because whilst private praise will give a feeling of self-esteem, it is significantly increased when your praise is seen by others. Now not everyone wants public praise, so we need to be careful we don't offend. But there is a second reason for doing it publicly because we are showing others what we value, and we are also showing them how they can get some recognition of their own.
Recognition is the appreciation for the task performed, it can be congratulating them on a job well done, or a simple thank you.
It has to be authentic. If its fake people will see right through it and it will have the opposite effect.
Don't wait for a review or a meeting to let people know they did good, give them the feedback immediately you see it. If you wait and let the moment pass, they might think that you were not happy, or appreciative with what they did. Letting them know immediately is much more powerful.
Try and be specific, the more specific you can be, the more impactful it will be. "Great job on that spreadsheet. I loved the transparency it provided." Or something simple like "I love your enthusiasm". For people to repeat it, we need to let them know what we liked.
Lastly, how you say it is just as important as what you say; so be enthusiastic. Make a little bit of a show about it. Don't go crazy, but don't be flat either.
Recognition is the fuel in the fire of continuous improvement. It gives an excellent return on investment as it costs nothing and can help you achieve amazing things.
When you start to recognize people, if things are not such a great start, then start with recognizing the effort and then slowly raise the bar for what gets recognized and their performance will follow.
Another side effect of recognition is that the more you recognize people, the more you will get recognized.
Recognition is a win-win-win strategy. It's great for your teams. It's great for you. And it's great for your company because of the results that highly engaged and motivated teams can achieve.