How to Build a Culture of Continuous Improvement
By Mike Raia Posted April 12, 2019
Continuous improvement (CI) is an ongoing effort to improve a product, service, or process. For example, author Karen J. Fryer describes CI as the process of getting better all the time. The American Society for Quality (ASQ) holds that CI efforts can include incremental improvement where improvement occurs gradually over time as well as breakthrough improvement where the improvement happens all at once.
CI generally involves the process of evaluating the customer’s value of the delivery and seeking ways to improve that value. W. Edwards Deming was a pioneer in CI who saw it as part of the process for evaluating feedback from customers against an organization’s goals. CI is most closely associated with quality initiatives, although this isn’t its only application. Other areas of business also lend themselves to the CI process, including strategy development and relationships with business stakeholders such as customers, employees, and suppliers.
Some experts view CI as a meta-process for management systems like workflow management, program management, project management, and quality management. However, the fact that these are management processes doesn’t mean that an organization’s management needs to directly implement CI initiatives, according to the ASQ. It only means that management must make decisions about designing and implementing these initiatives.
Successful implementations of CI often use the strategy of kaizen, which literally means “good change” in Japanese. This strategy is based on feedback, efficiency, and evolution. Feedback is the core principle of CI, which is the process of identifying opportunities for improvement. Efficiency is the purpose of CI, including the identification and reduction of suboptimal processes. CI also emphasizes evolution in the form of incremental steps.
Improvements in a kaizen strategy consist of many small changes to processes rather than the radical changes that can result from research and development. The ideas for changes in the kaizen approach primarily come from the workers themselves, which typically makes them easy to implement without major capital expenditure. Kaizen also encourages workers to take ownership of their work, which can improve worker motivation.
Many organizations have attempted to implement CI programs, often beginning with employee suggestion programs. However, these programs may fail because they represent a dramatic departure from a company’s current philosophy of process improvement. CI often requires an organization to first undergo a cultural change before it can have any real chance of success. This process requires a top-down approach that begins with management and includes the following features:
- Executive involvement
- Small steps
- Employee participation
- Making mistakes
- Showing the difference
Each of these aspects of CI includes its own set of actionable steps that will help make your CI program a success.
1. Executive Involvement
Executive buy-in is typically the first and most crucial requirement for a successful CI initiative. C-level executives need to explain to their employees why they want new improvements and how they will lead to a happier work environment. Happy employees are more loyal and productive, leading to greater revenue.
2. Small Steps
An organization that’s new to CI needs to start small. A small-scale pilot project can often succeed where a project that involves the whole company would fail. A pilot program should closely track the changes and the benefits they provide. The lessons you learn from these programs can lead to larger successes later on.
Limit a CI pilot program to just one department, or even a single office. Work out the bugs first before you consider implementing it for your entire company.
3. Employee Participation
Employees are the foundation of any CI program, making their participation essential for changing corporate culture. Encourage employees to share their ideas by recognizing and rewarding them in some way. It’s also important to implement the ideas you select as quickly as possible to demonstrate your commitment to making improvements. You should also provide feedback on the ideas you don’t select to encourage future submissions.
Learning what motivates each employee is essential for ensuring participation in a cultural change. These motivations can generally be classified into achieving autonomy, gaining mastery over skills and finding a purpose. Almost every employee has at least one thing that annoys them about their company. Let them know that this is their chance to fix it. Many of these problems can be fixed fairly easily, such as installing motion sensors that automatically turn lights off when no one is in a room.
4. Making Mistakes
A willingness to make mistakes is a major part of CI. People won’t provide ideas for improvement if a company punishes them for not getting it right the first time. A CI project must therefore include procedures that make it safe to fail, which often includes many changes to a project before implementing it. Just because an idea doesn’t work the way you expected doesn’t mean that it’s fundamentally unsound or that you shouldn’t fix the problem. Sometimes, a perceived failure means you haven’t properly defined the problem yet.
5. Showing the Difference
The process of implementing small changes often means that it’s difficult to notice the results of a single change. Employees tend to forget about the previous process once they begin doing things a new way, especially if it’s an improvement. Make sure you keep employees invested in CI by showing measurable results of process changes.
You can accomplish this by conducting regular reviews of your improvement processes. A transparent process will also inspire employees to continue contributing. Some improvements will benefit from analytics, especially in cases where the change affects a measurable quantity such as sales, profit, or revenue. Morale is more difficult to measure, although well-designed surveys are one method of doing this.
Changing an organization’s culture to be receptive to CI is typically a slow process, so you may not see any changes at first. Set the expectations of your team members from the beginning to prepare them for this possibility. The initial meeting with your team is also an ideal opportunity to establish the transparency that CI requires and ensure everyone is on the same page.
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