How to Build a Culture of Continuous Improvement

This article was written by John Knotts. John recently joined the Gemba Academy team as a Senior Coach of Lean and Six Sigma. 

A culture of continuous improvement provides any company a significant advantage in the marketplace.

But don’t just take my word for it.

Corus is a customer-focused, innovative solutions-driven company, which manufactures, processes, and distributes steel and aluminum products and services to customers worldwide. Corus is already seeing the benefits of continuous improvement with:

  • Reduced process waste
  • Improved product quality
  • Reduced rework time
  • Faster response times
  • Driving costs down
  • Retaining and gaining customers

Corus is just one case study of companies around the globe that have benefited from continuous improvement.

Building a culture of continuous improvement is not easy and can take a considerable amount of time. However, it is very possible, and results will be felt within months, if not weeks, of seriously embarking on a journey to continuous improvement.

Deciding to move toward a culture of continuous improvement means becoming more strategic about how you manage your day-to-day operations. This is not about putting a few changes in place and calling it “good.”

Over the past 25 plus years, I have developed a model for building this type of culture. This model centers on a strategy designed to build this culture in your organization. The strategy involves an equal portion of measuring, improving, and changing work. This model is fueled by a level of employee commitment and innovation.

What Culture We Are Building?

Yes, I know the title sounds like something Yoda from Star Wars might say. But I wanted you to stop and think about the title and not simply breeze by. Culture is perhaps the most important aspect of establishing continuous improvement in your organization. I wanted you to think about the phrasing of my title and emphasize the active voice in the fact that we are building it and it is not being built around us. You are the one that builds the culture that everyone operates in.

We talk about “culture” all the time and, honestly, I think there is a misconception that culture is something that you can simply flip a switch and change. It just doesn’t work that way. Culture is how the people in an organization operate and behave and is a result of many different things.

I don’t know if you’ve read the popular business/self-help book, Competing for the Future, by Gary Hamel and C. K. Prahalad (1996). In their book, they talk about an experiment supposedly run in the 1970s with several monkeys. This story provides a vivid demonstration of how culture is built in an organization over time. It also demonstrates how difficult it is for us to actually change an embedded culture or create a new one.

For those that have not read about this, this is the gist of the story:

Climbing to the Top

Researchers put several monkeys in a cage that had a ladder in the very center. At the top of the ladder, they hung a banana. Every time any of the monkeys tried to climb the ladder to get the banana, the researchers sprayed all the monkeys with cold water. As you can imagine, soon, none of the monkeys tried to climb the ladder to get the banana anymore.

Then, the researchers changed out one of the monkeys with one that had never been sprayed with cold water. As you would expect, that monkey tried to climb the ladder to get to the banana. This time, however, the researchers did not have to spray the monkeys with cold water; all the other monkeys attacked the new monkey and prevented him from climbing the ladder.

Over time, the researchers replaced each monkey in the cage with monkeys that had never been sprayed with cold water and the same thing happened every time. Finally, none of the monkeys in the cage had ever been sprayed with cold water, but none of them would climb the ladder to get to the banana.

This is how culture is formed…it begins with the actions of a leader and is adopted and carried forward by the employees until the chain of activities is broken.

According to Gallup’s recent report, “State of the American Workplace,” only 30 percent of the U.S. workforce can be considered engaged in their work. This means that the vast majority of U.S. workers (70 percent) are not reaching their full performance potential at work. This is a direct result of cultures in U.S. businesses today.

A true continuous improvement culture depends on an employee base that is fully engaged. As you can imagine, a large part of building this type of culture means focusing on also developing a culture of engagement.

What Exactly Is Continuous Improvement?

But what exactly do I mean when I say continuous improvement? Many organizations see this as a team or teams of process improvement practitioners that continually work on projects. Although this sounds like a culture of continuous improvement, this is not what I am proposing here. What I am talking about, and what we will explore over the next several months, is building a culture where continuous improvement is owned by engaged employees – all employees – in a company.

You may have heard the proverb, “Many hands, make light work?” That is what I propose – an environment where all your employees, at all levels, are engaged and looking every day for ways to improve their day-to-day work.

During a past American Society for Quality World Conference on Quality and Improvement, over 2,000 quality practitioners descended on Dallas, Texas, for several days. The conference had five major theme and focus areas – speaker tracks so to speak. Each theme and focus area consisted of a certain number of sessions. They were as follows:

  • Making a Case for Quality (8 sessions)
  • Customer Relations (13 sessions)
  • Risk Management (17 sessions)
  • Quality Fundamentals (24 sessions)
  • Building and Sustaining a Quality Culture (39 sessions)

As you can see, Building and Sustaining a Quality Culture had over twice as many sessions as three of the other theme and focus areas. In fact, this theme and focus area had more sessions than Customer Relations, Risk Management, and Making a Case for Quality combined! Obviously, the topic of building and sustaining a quality culture is one of the most important aspects in quality today.

Leaderment

I don’t like blaming culture issues in an organization solely on leadership – in fact, I believe that the organization, leadership, and employees all create a culture. However, leadership is still a key factor in creating a culture – whether it is a good or bad one. As leaders, do we embrace a culture where everyone is encouraged to climb the ladder and grab the banana, or is what we create designed to keep everyone from even trying without even understanding why?

I emphasize this in a term that I often refer to as “Leaderment.” This is where I propose that leaders and managers must possess aspects of both good leadership and management to really be effective. Their actions, on both sides of the house, create the culture that all employees – even the leaders and managers themselves – must operate within. Leaders create the strategy and managers deploy it. Strategy – one of continuous improvement – is key to my model of a continuous improvement culture. Thus, leaders and managers are a key part of the model, but they are only one aspect.

As I said earlier, continuous improvement is not about a single team continuously improving processes across your organization. Many companies think that hiring a team of Black Belts or Lean Sensei will solve their problems and solves their need for a “culture.”

No!

I’m here to tell you that you do need a team, but it’s not the team that represents the culture. The reason you need a team is because you need expertise in process improvement – whether it be Lean, Six Sigma, or Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. It does not matter, you need experts to help define and promote the environment, teach the tools and techniques, and support the more difficult process improvement challenges.

The biggest challenge you will have in changing the culture is overcoming the “CAVE People” – these are the people in your organizations that are considered Citizens Against Virtually Everything (CAVE). Thus, there is a strong emphasis on change that wraps around my model.

2 Comments

  1. Sindre Dyngen

    September 11, 2021 - 3:04 am
    Reply

    Thank you for this article Ron, I heard the monkey story before, but it definitely didn’t hurt reading it again and reflect.

    We are trying to shift the mindset in my organization now, in the beginning Lean was considered White board sessions, I like to think that at now 1 year later without to much management support from the start, people think of continuous improvement as something more, and I start to see changes in at least one department where they now start to think that it can be used to reach their goal.

    What I am trying to say that this is a very difficult but interesting journey, and it is nice reading articles from professionals to “check” if my mindset is on the right track

  2. Sindre Dyngen

    September 11, 2021 - 3:57 am
    Reply

    I see I have to correct myself, thank you John!

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