How to Apply Continuous Improvement to Build Relationships at Work

The key to continuous improvement is capturing the lessons to be learned when things go wrong and when things go right and celebrating them.

Training Magazine

In today’s workplace, we seek to practice ongoing, continuous improvement in nearly every area and aspect of the organization. We also need to apply those practices in an ongoing, continuous way to improve our working relationships—up, down, sideways, and diagonal.

Continuous improvement

The key to continuous improvement is capturing the lessons to be learned when things go wrong—instead of finger-pointing. But it also means capturing lessons when things go right and celebrating them. Because to get better at working together, you also have to acknowledge and understand your successes so you can duplicate and improve on them.

What could be more important than continuously improving the management of our number-one asset?

In every workplace I visit, I hear plenty of praise and admiration among people for their coworkers:

“This person is great.”

I also hear people complain every day—about other people, teams, or entire departments:

“I wouldn’t want to work with that person again.”

“If I’m going to work with that person again, I’d definitely do some things differently.”

This all makes tons of sense. The funny thing is how much all of those comments actually contain such very important information. Those opinions, and the details below the surface, hold the keys to improving our relationships.

Because, once you’ve completed a piece of the puzzle, or even an entire project, or gotten the product out the door with bells, whistles, and a bow on top, it’s still not done—or at least, you shouldn’t be done. That’s where a whole new kind of magic happens, after the work itself is done. The magic that drives continuous improvement happens when you take one more step: a systematic postwork follow-up process.

The basic question you want to answer is: What can we do better together to improve our process, results, and working relationship? Taking this critical step, postwork debriefing doesn’t come naturally in most organizations. Not enough companies build in postwork follow-up reviews and relationship-building to their checklists and process steps. Most are more concerned with moving on to the next project, as quickly as possible. And I understand why. People tend to fall into a routine, especially when working with the same people over and over. They take for granted that they’ll always work together, more or less well, and they move on to the next project.

Or at the other end of the spectrum are those periodic, occasional, or even out-of-the-blue, working relationships. We assume that when we finish the interaction or transaction, it is over and done, a one-off. We don’t stop and think about the next time we might find ourselves working together again.

Both ends of the spectrum are missed opportunities for continuous improvement in the working relationships.

With people you always work with, there’s always room to improve, whether you’re aware of it or not. You’ll never find out if you don’t take the final step of engaging in a postwork process.

And what about the one-offs, those people you never normally work with except on this one project? Don’t kid yourself: there’s likely to be the next time. Why not make the next time even better than this time?

Relationship building tips

You will need some discipline and maybe some insistence to include a postwork process after the work itself is done. That means that after every working interaction or transaction, you follow up and build the relationship before the next interaction or transaction.

  • Lift people up and they will lift you up, too.
  • Focus on the work. When the work goes better, the relationship will go better.
  • Too many would-be go-to people emphasize politics, popularity, or even friendship. Instead:
    • Foster authentic rapport by talking about the work you have in common.
    • Build enduring political power at work by being a reliable public servant.
  • Take a continuous improvement approach to your number- one asset.
    • Step one: Take time to celebrate success.
      • Make a great thank-you one of your signatures.
    • Step two: Examine and fine-tune your modus operandi.
      • Channel complaining, blaming, and finger-pointing into continuous improvement. Get in the habit of doing after-action reviews.
    • Step three: Plan ahead.
      • End every work interaction or transaction by looking around the corner at the next opportunity to be of service to each other.
    • Relationship building is an upward spiral in the making.
      • You can never have too many go-to people or preferred customers.
Bruce Tulgan
Bruce Tulgan is a best-selling author and CEO of RainmakerThinking, the management research, consulting, and training firm he founded in 1993. All of his work is based on 27 years of intensive workplace interviews and has been featured in thousands of news stories around the world. His newest book, “The Art of Being Indispensable at Work: Win Influence, Beat Overcommitment, and Get the Right Things Done” ( Harvard Business Review Press) is available for purchase from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and all major booksellers. Follow Tulgan on Twitter @BruceTulgan or visit his Website at: