How Small Things Make A Big Difference At Work.


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Whether you are a leader or an employee, there are times when you know things are not right. There’s low productivity, lots of busyness that’s not producing much bus-i-ness. Low morale is palpable. Too many are dis-engaged, just bringing their bodies to work and leaving their hearts and minds in the car park. This was that unique part of them that had so much to offer the organisation and its future growth and development, yet was not being made available to the organisation.

It always amazes me when I talk to leaders and employees alike about turning this around, restoring morale, energy and enthusiasm to their businesses and work, that I am met with a feeling of powerlessness. Leaders tell me they don’t have the money to put into it and employees feel that what they think and feel doesn’t matter to management so what’s the use.

Why do CEOs and leaders feel that issues of low morale and disengagement can only be solved by throwing money at them? I suspect the answer to that question provides the reason why employees have opted out. There is breakdown in the relationship between management and employees and while there may be an employment contract in place, there is certainly no psychological contract in existence.

Neither leaders not employees need to think big. Small things can make a big difference and I’m reminded of the adage: “small hinges swing big doors.” I want to give you three ideas for how small things make a difference.

Idea 1. Attend to the One Percenters!

I heard a colleague, Keith Abraham, talk recently about his work with Toyota. On a visit to the assembly line of one of their factories where they were producing Land Cruisers he observed first hand their process of continuous improvement, kaizen.

As he was being taken through the factory and along the assembly line by his guide, he noticed, that within about 45 minutes, half a dozen people leave their work space and go to a white board on the other side of the building and write something on it. He asked his guide what they were doing and was told that they were writing down ideas for improvement.

Keith asked the guide how many ideas they got in the course of a year and was told 900,000 from their 60,000 employees. Asking how many were implemented, he was told that 97% of them were implemented within the course of a year. Keith couldn’t conceive how that would be possible and asked, rather skeptically, how they did it. The guide told him it was quite simple because they were mainly one percenters! Small ideas, easily implemented that contributed to the continuous improvement that Toyota believed gave it the competitive edge.

Idea 2. Improve One Tip At A Time!

During the last week I came across a new book by Wally Bock, one of my favourite bloggers on leadership. It is called “Become A Better BOSS, One Tip at a Time”.

He is making the same point. He shares 347 tips in all that he has learned over four decades of training, coaching and studying leaders, but many of them are equally applicable to employees and how they can improve.

One of his tips is “Think Small” and he goes on to say that catching problems when they are small makes them easier to solve.

Bock’s main point is that you don’t have to make huge changes, or take giant leaps, or spend huge amounts of money to bring about change and improvement. You just engage in continuous on-going improvement “one tip at a time”.

At $9.99 his book is great value.

Idea 3. Give 20-30 Minutes of Your Day To Get To Know Your Employees .

I originally got this idea from a coach colleague, but I’ve used it myself with the same great success.

He was talking with a CEO friend over a drink and the CEO was lamenting that morale was very low in his organisation and he did not know what to do about it and had no money to fix it. Again, that idea that only money will fix things! My colleague asked him if he would be prepared to spend 20-30 minutes a day for a month turning this situation around. Of course he would, especially if it cost no money.

This CEO would park his car out the front of the building each day and walk straight into his office at the front of the building and most days would lead the company with his executive team from there.
My colleague suggested that instead of going straight into his office, he walked through one part of his organisation each day and met and talked with his people. Of course, when he began to do this, staff were very suspicious, thinking that he was sizing up the organisation for retrenchments and closures. Everyone was feeling the low morale.

When he had been doing it for three weeks, however, there was a decided difference in the organisation. People were engaging with him more openly. They were giving him ideas about what could happen to improve things in the organisation because he was actually finding the “walk arounds” enjoyable and he became very relaxed about it. Morale was on the improve. Everybody felt it.

That CEO was a good communicator and had the capacity to engage his people, but like so many CEOs, he believed he didn’t have time to do that, that it wasn’t his responsibility. It was his executive leaders’ role. (It reminds me of a joke I heard in one organisation. What’s the difference between JJ (the CEO) and Santa Claus? Answer: Santa Claus is real. They never saw the CEO. )

What happened in that organisation was especially interesting to me as someone working in leadership development. The CEO was so moved by what happened with this simple action that he kept on doing it every day that he was in the office after the initial trial month passed by. He also encouraged his senior executives to do the same. More interesting, he found the money to get himself a coach to work with him so he could continue to grow the improved relationships between management and employees that had been started with this process because it had produced such significant results.

What Small Things Can You Do  in Your Life and in Your Organisation that would make A Big Difference?

So when things aren’t right in your organisation or when you are feeling disengaged, not wanting to go to work or morale is low, stop and reflect.

What small change could you make that would make a difference to you and how you feel about your work and your organisation?

What are the one percenters that you can activate to bring about change and improvement?

What tips can you activate one at a time?

Think laterally and outside the square.

Some inspiration from the late Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop.

“If you think small things don’t matter,

you’ve never been to bed with a mosquito.”


  1. Jannie on April 4, 2017 at 11:55 pm

    Thanks for the great article, you highlighted the simple and cheap solutions. Human relationshis are the key and recognizing what people have to contribute.

    • Maree Harris, Ph.D. on April 5, 2017 at 8:55 am

      Jannie, thanks for joining the conversation. You are so right about the importance of human relationships, yet why do so many of us forget that when we are under stress or in crisis? We get stuck in management speak or strategies when good communciation and especially active listening bring about the biggest results.

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