The continuous improvement (CI) journey offers opportunities for achieving operational excellence, with significant enhancements to a company’s bottom line and enrichment of employee morale. It can, however, be fraught with frustration if the strategy and tactics for implementation are not clearly planned and communicated.
Ideally enthusiastic, skilled and respected change agents and management across the organization will drive a culture-led CI implementation, guaranteeing top-down and bottom-up engagement and alignment. This will ensure lasting success, not a “flavor-of-the-month” perception by large portions of the workforce, including some reluctant managers.
Culture-led Continuous Improvement
Some organizations approach CI with basic training on the history and theory of continuous improvement and a collection of Six Sigma and Lean tools that have proven valuable across multiple processes and operational fields. These are certainly important elements of the overall plan, but when applied as standalone items without needed cultural changes, they're not adequate to drive lasting CI success.
This tools-driven approach parallels the concept from Field of Dreams:
“If you build it, he will come.”
However, if you build a complex continuous improvement structure without a supporting culture, very few workers in your organization will actually come to the CI game. However, if you change the culture to get people to come to the shared CI mindset, they will build the continuous improvement system. Broad-based ownership is key to lasting cultural change.
What does the CI culture consist of?
Merriam-Webster defines culture as “a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization.” The process of operationalizing continuous improvement requires building CI into the thinking, behaviors, and work efforts at every level of the organization. At a grand scale, the execution of the CI implementation plan actually follows the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle that Deming envisioned. At an operational level, it’s important to build in specific structural elements that will ensure success.
Continuous Improvement Implementation Requirements
Five key planning and execution actions are needed for CI implementation success. This “how-to guide” can be used for CI change from small to large organizations, with geographically centered or virtual teams.
- Establish the vision: Whenever a change is desired, and especially one intensely changing human performance, an articulated and communicated vision is vitally important. The shared vision is part of the “thinking” element of the culture-led continuous improvement effort. Without a clear vision, participants will be confused and head in different directions.
- Build in incentive and commitment: People like to stay in their comfort zones; they need incentives to change from the norm and to maintain their changed behaviors. Ideally, the implementation plan will include both intrinsic motivation (e.g. metrics and prompt feedback built into the new work itself) and extrinsic motivation (e.g. team rewards for progress and milestones). This addresses the “behaving” element of the culture. Without incentives and commitment cultural changes will be slow.
- Provide resources: The motivated workforce needs resources to help them know what to do and know that what they are doing is working. This includes change agents, who may be virtual contacts, specifically trained in operational excellence methods to provide coaching and support. It also includes the technology and other physical resources needed to monitor progress. Without appropriate resources, workers will be frustrated in trying to fit in with the new culture of continuous improvement.
- Build skills: In order to do this new CI work properly, workers need training in continuous improvement tools and methods, such as Lean and Six Sigma. Without training and demonstrated capabilities in this work, individuals will experience anxiety because they cannot deliver the competence needed. Providing resources and skills is essential for the “working” elements of the culture.
- Create an action plan: From the overall vision, a strategic plan and aligned tactical plans are needed, with specific accountabilities, timelines, metrics, and review and correction processes. Think of this as a continuous improvement agenda. Without this well-developed and communicated action plan, motivated pockets of workers will have false starts, sometimes with dysfunctional results, and may ultimately give up the overall changes.
Continuous Improvement Content Deployment
With today’s capabilities for virtual information access nearly instantaneously across a room or across the world, content sharing is easy; yet, it still requires planning and systems capabilities for maximum impact in CI ownership and successful implementation.
Beyond just sharing content, operationalizing valuable information requires:
- Linking instructional content to job aids and self-assessment metrics.
- Integrating content within the overall framework, with accessible relational and hierarchical links.
- Providing an organizational overlay that enables local self-assessment with roll-up capability.
- Visualizing an operational maturity profile for each location, with capability for prioritizing improvement tasks for gap closure.
- Including detailed action planning (i.e. Who will do what by when?) with red-yellow-green status tracking and alerts.
- Enabling user uploads of work completed and best practices.
- Providing a forum for user questions and answers.
While continuous improvement is often described as a collection of small advances, it actually is most effective in driving operational excellence when it is approached as this longer-term strategic journey built on cultural change.
This post was edited and updated for relevance by Nancy Bach on 10/24/16.