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Enterprise Excellence Episode 15: Renee Smith

How to Achieve a Culture of Continuous Improvement in the Public Sector with Renee Smith


Welcome to episode 15 of the Enterprise Excellence Podcast. It is such a pleasure to have Renee Smith on the show. Renee previously served as the Director of Workplace Transformation for Washington State as part of the Governor's Results Washington Team. Renee has championed a more humane and effective workplace. Renee is a researcher, writer and speaker globally on the topic of making work more humane by increasing love and decreasing fear in the workplace.


Renee Smith previously served as the Director of Workplace Transformation for Washington State as part of the Governor's Results Washington Team. Renee has championed a more humane and effective workplace. Renee is a researcher, writer and speaker globally on the topic of making work more humane by increasing love and decreasing fear in the workplace.

In her early adult life, Renee talks about losing her way, leaving college, marrying and having two children and moving to regional Alaska, following her husband's dreams. It was a challenging experience as her husband was seriously injured in a plane crash. Renee became his full-time carer and had another two children. She then returned to school, found her people, her calling and her voice. Renee talks about the resilience this developed in her together with a caring, humanistic approach to help others.

Renee worked hard to enhance her education and develop her career, which evolved into roles within Washington State and developed into her role as the Director of Workplace Transformation. Renee shares stories from this time where she experienced and led a more humanistic approach at work. Leaders were encouraged to drive out fear and fill the gap with love in the workplace.

Washington State was embracing lean as an operating system, a culture and way of working. Renee and her team were preparing a lean conference for the entire State. Renee had a life-changing chat with her Executive Director Chris Lew, who began his training at Toyota in the early days. Renee and Chris were discussing the leadership style that was required to sustain fantastic results from people. He said, and Renee quoted him saying "eliminate fear from the workplace", which was music to Renee's ears. She began to thoughtfully unpack that idea - if we were to decrease fear, what would take its place? Naturally, it's polar opposite: love. What does 'love' look like in the workplace? How do we encourage people to speak up, offer their ideas, complete PDCA, and apply lean techniques to improve a workplace? Renee began to study. She researched hundreds of people's stories and developed a firm idea of what fear and love looked like in the workplace.

Renee provides insights into what she calls moments that count. Renee kindly shares how a leader can approach these moments that count with their people to drive out fear and foster love, caring, trust and respect. Practically, Renee believes that it is easiest to think of a way to drive fear in a situation and asks leaders to make their fear plan first. Then on the other side of the paper, detail how they can create the opposite - their loving, respectful plan.

Renee believes that by looking at the difference between the two plans, leaders can be present in each moment. They can consciously place themselves in the shoes of their people and plan a more humanistic approach for moments that count. This approach will ultimately build and foster a positive team culture.

Renee shares her career transition from Washington State to a private practice of her own focused on helping organisations create a more humanistic approach at work. Renee explains how the timing of this change coincided with the COVID 19 Pandemic in March. She had to pivot quickly and found that only through listening to her intuition and nurturing herself could she offer her best. She sold her house and moved to a place that embraced nature and bought a kayak. This move nourished her and helped her move two years of strategic planning through in a few months. Renee believes that presenting your best self requires you to be nurtured on a whole level, and we are responsible for giving that to ourselves.

Renee is developing a global network of facilitators and events to help people come together, share and learn how to create more humanistic workplaces. She is becoming the advocate for spreading the good news that fear is out, and love is in! Hooray for that!

Thanks for a fantastic episode, Renee.



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03.53min in a sense it was kind of like PDCA'ing my way into a new life.

09.24min Chris, like let’s get real. Tell me what do you think is the most important job of a leader? And I will never forget what he said. He immediately answered, 'to eliminate fear from the workplace'.

12.58min if we're going to have this respect for people in this culture that we're trying to build, then that means that I need to hold precious the humanity of my team members. Right? That's underneath all of everything else that we would do is to hold precious, deeply caring for the humanity of my team members. and it means that I'm going to hold precious the humanity of my customers, and deeply caring for them as human beings.

15.03min Lean is a human centred philosophy of work, or a human centred approach to work. At its highest level, that's what it is.

15.15min and that approach creates a culture that has certain principles and values, and it uses certain methods tools, and results in certain things. It results in continuous improvement and delivering better value to customers, and flow and so on.

19.43min if you think about, what, like, to contrast, what fear in action would look like with that really public mistake, you know, you can imagine. It's like throw them under the bus, or make, kind of hang them out to dry, public shaming, reading the write act, or maybe they lose their job.

20.09min but instead, Rick reached out to this person and let them know that he was there for them, and that they were family, and they weren't alone. and coached and mentored that person though the correcting of the mistake, and that person went on to have a really successful leadership career.

21.10min you know, we face all kinds of moments, I call them moments that matter all the time.

22.27min and if we are not there for each other in ways that really count that show that we can for each other's humanity, then whatever we've declared is null and void.

24.21min in any given challenge that we have as leaders or team members too; this can apply to anyone, there's always a choice about how we live into that challenge.

25.09min Part 1: think through what can I do to create fear? What is my plan for fear? And we know, right? We know. Sometimes we've got to pause and slow down a little to think about it, but we know. We know the things, like poor communication, surprising people, not explaining what’s happening, not providing people the resources they need, and not giving people them time to get to know each another. We can make that list of what would create fear in that scenario.

26.45min almost anything that we're doing, even in strategic planning. It could be in the implementation of an improvement that we're making. We pause. That's like a lens that we can apply to anything. Pause and consider, how do we move this forward now? We know it's a good new way to work. How do we move forward with this now in a way that does not create fear and that does create love?

33.40min whatever our funding stream comes from, whether it comes from tax dollars or sales revenue, that's immaterial to human beings on a team, collaborating, trying to bring value to those that they serve in some way.

37.49min so I'll be doing a lot more advocacy, and speaking and declaring the good news, if you will, about more love and less fear, and helping people understand how essential that is right not, as ever it is.

My Key Takeaways

1. Drive out fear and fill the gap with love.

Fear in a workplace causes many negative reactions. Things getting hidden, not focussed on, not talking about challenges, or being fearful of consequences.

Providing love through support and development for all people in the organisation will create a better workplace.

2. Focus on moments that count - choose a different path.

Find the gap of reason, between the trigger and your initial response. Our initial reactions as humans occur very quickly. How can you think about approaching the situation to create a more humane, loving workplace where people are safe to fail and that develops a culture of continuous improvement?

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