SOS Continuous Improvement

By G. Todd Vanek

Venn diagram with three circles overlapping. Top circle says "leading others." Bottom left circle says "Developing self." bottom right circle says "Managing Systems." Were all circles overlap it says "Leadership."

Continuous Improvement is an important part of a leadership mindset. But continuous improvement can feel daunting when considering its application in a very broad sense. Adopting a leadership framework like the SOS Leadership Model can make improvement efforts more manageable. The Self, Others, Systems Leadership Model taught in the Leading People and Organizations course in the online Engineering and Technology Management Program at Washington State University provides emerging leaders with a framework to implement continuous improvement initiatives.

The SOS model more specifically addresses Developing Self, Leading Others, and Managing Systems. The model allows decision makers to approach a situation from those three different perspectives. 

Managing Systems is the component individuals at any level of an organization should first analyze for opportunities for improvement. A System is defined as a set of principles or procedures according to which something is done” (Oxford Languages).  In business, processes, procedures, and technology make up the systems necessary to produce a product or provide a service. This could be anything from a simple, but powerful app/software to a company’s culture. As a leader, in order to make improvement, one has to fully understand the systems they are working with.

Leading Others is the most important component of the framework. People operate the technology and carry out the processes and procedures that make a System work. And key in this component is ownership over the processes and systems that a worker uses. Without a feeling of ownership, continuous improvement will be laborious and consume a manager’s time (and often gets perceived as micro-management). Those working the technology, processes, and systems are the ones most likely to make the biggest gains in improvement.

Developing Self is probably the most neglected component of the framework for new decision makers. Managers often look for improvement outside of the themselves, and that is good, to a point. Good leaders recognize their impact, good or bad, in the improvement of any System. Analyzing, and improving one’s own actions can pay considerable dividends in continuous improvement efforts.

Full use of the SOS model comes not just from applying each component individually, but also understanding and managing the interactions of the three components as displayed in the visual presented above. The successful management of the relationships between the components could be viewed as a necessary leadership skill. When one successfully applies the individual components of managing systems, developing self, and leading others into their continuous improvement actions, they can successfully manage, but when they master the potential synergy between the components, they can successfully lead continuous improvement efforts.