Secrets to Continuously Improving Your Business

To succeed over the long term, your company needs to keep asking how it can better serve your customers. Reinvention and innovation are never optional.
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In the 1980s, as America's automotive industry fell behind Japan, a new vogue emerged: copying their manufacturing tactics. The U.S. may have spawned Henry Ford and the assembly line, not to mention Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Efficiency Movement, but as the 20th century progressed, postwar Japan left America in the dust.

Kaizen, or "continuous improvement," was a tenet as much as a technique: tiny improvements made every day can build up and create major advances over time. That was certainly the case for Toyota and its much-studied manufacturing processes (not to mention self-help guru Tony Robbins, who adapted the principles to encourage personal growth). Like many business crazes--"management by walking around," re-engineering, and the like--kaizen, at times, has been overdone.

Thankfully, however, the excesses don't discount the fundamental validity of the idea. Your company doesn't engender customer loyalty--or impress potential new customers--by doing the same thing over and over, no matter how competently. You're falling behind if you're not looking for new ways to enhance your offerings, sharpen your skills, and better their condition even more. Keeping up with your clients isn't good enough. Here are five strategies to ensure you're staying ahead of them, and providing value every step of the way.

1. Read voraciously. Business publications (the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times Business section, and Forbes or Fast Company magazines) are a good start and often profile innovators. But don't go too narrow. Reading about your interests--plus things you have no clue about, from jazz to Arctic fauna--can help spark new ideas. Books by creativity experts like Michael Michalko show that many of the most innovative ideas come from combining insights from different, seemingly unconnected fields.

2. Socialize to learn. You don't have to have an "agenda" when you're in social situations--but always try to learn something. Whether it's digging deeper into your conversations or consciously choosing your recreational activities to have an educational edge, if you want to learn and grow as a person, don't divorce your social life from your personal growth. Some of my favorite vacations have been to Renaissance Weekend, a quarterly conference that brings people together for workshops and seminars on a variety of unusual topics.

3. Tap powerful trends. Keep an eye on the big picture. The Tech Bubble of the late 1990s laid the groundwork for Web 2.0, thanks to the profusion of infrastructure investment rolled out in those giddy days. Infinitely more was possible on the web--video, audio--with broadband-enabled fast connections, not to mention the steeply declining cost of online storage. What trends are brewing today in your own industry that you should be capitalizing on?

4. Be the change you wish to see. Mahatma Gandhi had it right--you're not a convincing messenger if you're not walking the walk. If you're advising your customers to get savvier about technology, make sure your website is up to date (if it hasn't been significantly refreshed in more than three years, it's probably time for a do-over). It's your responsibility to upgrade your professional skills through trainings, classes, and focused efforts to gain new competencies. If your company hasn't changed its product mix or ways you communicate with your customers in the past few years, ask yourself why--because the world's changing around you.

5. Hold yourself accountable. As Stephen Covey used to say, it's easy to focus on the "urgent" at the expense of the "important." When a client's calling, or a report is due, or a meeting beckons, it's easy to slough off the longer-term planning that's necessary for meaningful change and growth. But over time, repeatedly making those decisions will inevitably lead to your company's obsolescence. We're all human. But behavioral economics has shown us ways we can compensate for tendencies to procrastinate or privilege the "now." Find a compatriot--or a group of them--who are also trying to hold themselves accountable, and make it a group project. Muhammad Yunus has a 98% repayment rate at his Grameen Bank--which provides small, low-interest loans to poor borrowers in developing nations--thanks to his model of groups guaranteeing loans to individuals, resulting in tremendous "peer pressure" to succeed. Alternately, you can put your own money on the line with, a website developed by a group of economists in which you "bet" on your success at achieving a specific goal--and have to pay if up if you fail. It's a risk worth taking if it will prompt you to take action and move your business forward.

To succeed over the long term, your company needs to keep asking how it can better serve your customers. Reinvention and innovation are never optional.

Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of Reinventing You and Stand Out, and you can receive her free Stand Out Self-Assessment Workbook.

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