How to Build a Culture of Continuous Improvement
Part 1 of this blog outlined the basics of what continuous improvement is and isn't. Now we discuss the steps needed to implement this strategy within your organization.
Building a culture of continuous improvement begins with adopting a strategic plan that works for your organization. This strategy must be aligned with the existing business model, workflows, and culture of the organization. Additionally, all the major stakeholders need to be brought into the strategy for it to be effective.
While every organization is unique, the steps required to build a continuous improvement culture are the same. Doanh Do from The Lean Way does a great job of identifying these steps and describing the main points of each.
1. Critically analyze your organization
In order to determine the best way to move forward, you need to understand where your company is and what gaps exist in getting where you want it to go. Some questions to ask:
- What are the key performance indicators for the company?
- What does performance look like now versus in the future state?
- How much of an improvement should the company make on a monthly and annual basis to achieve the targets?
- What are the behaviors that you want to promote in your company?
- What are the core competencies of your team today?
- What core competencies do your team need to have in the future state?
- What type of leadership is necessary in the future state?
- How can you promote and develop leaders within your organization to prepare for the future state?
2. Communicate the goal to everyone
Once the targets for continuous improvement have been developed, you need to get buy-in from key stakeholders and communicate the message across your organization. The feedback from your stakeholders is very important and will allow you to refine your targets. It is essential that you put your goals in writing and allow everyone in the organization to have access to it. Only by having a shared vision and understanding of the mission can the whole organization move towards achieving the goal.
3. Have a framework
Every continuous improvement program needs a process – an operating model and set of procedures that, when executed correctly, will lead to the development, analysis, and adoption of improvement ideas. An example of a successful framework for continuous improvement is the Toyota Production System (TPS). Within TPS, there are a number of management principles, philosophies, and tools that can be used in any continuous improvement program. Some key concepts include: Kaizen, Plan-Do-Check-Act, 8 wastes, 5S, Gemba, etc. It is not necessary to know all of these concepts at once. However, the more knowledge you have about TPS, the more inspiration and opportunities for improvement you can identify on a daily basis.
4. Educate and spread awareness
People are only as effective as the tools they have available. Continuous improvement is not a natural phenomenon in organizations. The only way to enable and empower employees to embark on this journey is to educate them on the process and benefits of continuous improvement.
Several tools within TPS (such as visual management, 5S, Kanban, etc.) can be taught within an afternoon and the effects can be seen almost immediately. It is important to note that people’s memories wane over time and other priorities may get in the way of the continuous improvement program. As a result, training and education needs to be on-going. For some people the training can be an introduction to continuous improvement concepts and tools. For others, it can be a reminder of the practices and behaviors that they should exhibit on a daily basis.
5. Make change everyone’s responsibility
Continuous improvement requires the participation of everyone in the organization. This includes the executive suite, management, and associates. The continuous improvement program only becomes effective when employees are engaged in developing the culture and are proactive in identifying areas for improvement. To do this, everyone should understand their role and contribution to the company’s continuous improvement program. Only by working together and sharing responsibility across the entire organization can the goals of the improvement program be achieved.
6. Enhance communication
A continuous improvement program will lead to changes. Changes are generally positive when it improves the efficiency of working processes. However, if the changes are not well-managed or communicated, this can lead to disorder and chaos. People who are unaware of the new process improvements may do things the old-fashioned way while others work with the new process. This hybrid model can lead to problems and inefficiencies. If this problem persists, the organization may be reluctant to continue the continuous improvement efforts since each change leads to more work, disturbances in existing workflows, and overall chaos. One effective way of communicating changes is by documenting standards and best practices and complete training based on those.
7. Stay cautious and don’t rush
A continuous improvement program requires a lot of work, much more so than most first-time leaders estimate. It is important to prioritize initiatives and not rush into too many changes at once. During the first 6 months to 1 year, keep track of the amount of effort that it takes to start, spread, and sustain initiatives. This will give you a good indicator of how many improvement opportunities your team can handle at any given time. Doing too much at once can lead to sloppiness in work delivery and cause more problems later on.
8. Measure outcomes
A good continuous improvement program will yield positive outcomes, and it is important to quantify these outcomes. The more positive results that arise from your continuous improvement efforts, the more energy and momentum that your program will gain. Positive outcomes will encourage upper management to invest more into the program and pay more attention to it. Employees will be excited about the impact and contribution that they are making for the company.
9. Celebrate success
Continuous improvement is hard. It requires employees to critically think about their work and examine potential ways of improving it. As your continuous improvement program begins to gain more momentum, it is important to remember the people who make it possible. One way of sustaining the process is to regularly share success stories and recognize those involved. Most employees take pride in their work and are intrinsically motivated to improve it. They are simply looking for recognition and praise for a job well done.
10. Create new habits
Creating a continuous improvement culture requires changing people’s habits, which are very difficult to change. Part of the challenge of starting and sustaining a continuous improvement program is identifying a set of desired behaviors and continuously reinforce them. This can include training and retraining employees, helping people understand when their behaviors are misaligned with the continuous improvement efforts, and giving positive feedback to those who exemplify the desired behaviors.
Building a culture of continuous improvement takes time and does not happen instantly. It takes several years of deliberate planning and action. It is also not an initiative that can be “finished”. As a general rule, all things decay and rust over time if they are not properly taken care of. This analogy also applies to your continuous improvement culture. Just as your house or car requires regular maintenance to perform at optimal condition, your continuous improvement culture also requires regular attention and care.
Creating a culture of Continuous Improvement in your organization will not be an easy process; it may expose some inefficiencies or negative cultural tendencies that exist. However, the benefits of such a culture will help make the company more profitable and will engage all employees in the process of seeking out opportunities for improvement – and that is a culture that is sustainable for the long run.
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