A Culture of Continuous Improvement Begins with Leadership

By Steve Kane Updated on October 22nd, 2021

This is the second article, in a series of five, from Gemba Academy Senior Coach John Knotts. The remaining articles in this series will be posted over the next several weeks. 

Last month, we began our journey on Building a Culture of Continuous Improvement.  We know that continuous improvement brings many benefits to an organization.  Things, such as reduction in waste, improved quality, less rework, faster responses, elimination of costs, and improving customer experience.

Leaders set the environment for this culture of continuous improvement.

Everyone always wants to blame the failure to set a culture, or a bad culture, on leadership.  Leaders are responsible for setting the culture, but it takes more than leadership.  I do not believe it is fair to blame all of cultural woes on leadership.  In fact, I think that leaders shoulder way too much blame for a poor culture.

The most impactful stakeholder group, aside from leadership, to influence your culture of continuous improvement is your employees.  Cultures form based on the accepted and allowed norms in a company.

Two things in a company will always form regardless of leadership action. These two things are the brand and the culture.  This is because they represent the observed behaviors of the company and its stakeholders.

However, this does not give a free pass to leaders when it comes to culture.  They are as important as the organization and the employees when it comes to forming and maintaining a culture.

With that being said, a Continuous Improvement Culture that I described in my article last month, begins with leadership.  If this culture is not understood, influenced, and supported by leaders, the company is doomed to struggle and fail.  Thus, it takes significant leadership engagement to create and maintain a culture where all employees are continuously improving what they do every day.

Understand that when I use the word Leadership, I mean both leaders and managers – what I refer to as Leaderment, mentioned in my last article.  It takes both good leadership and management to change a culture.

Let me explain the strategic culture model that I employ with organizations, which I first learned about during change management training with Georgetown University several years ago.


Every organization should have a Vision.  Without a vision, we are like the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, and any road will take us where we are going.  The problem is that we are not all going in the same place and we have no idea where we want to end up.  I propose that any and every organization should have a vision where all employees are improving their own processes every day.  This is a vision of having a culture of continuous improvement.  With this vision, everyone in the organization knows what they are working to achieve and can align behind it.  This vision provides the direction for the organization’s culture – without the vision, little else matters.  Leaders set the vision and managers communicate the vision.

Values and Principles.

Leaders influence the culture through establishing values and principles, and then they live them through operating styles and behaviors.  Managers influence the culture through implementation of plans through the mission, goals, objectives, and actions.  As you can see, all leaders still need to operate as managers and all manager still need to operate like leaders.  This is why Leaderment is such a key term to building this type of continuous improvement culture.

The leader also focuses on bringing about change through their side of the culture equation, while managers ensure predictability in operation through their side.  Obviously, these two conflict, so it takes both a good leader and manager to balance these two items to generate results that are aligned to the vision.

This model is true of any organizational direction.

As I said earlier, leaders are just one part of the effort to institute a culture.  If the organization itself is not designed well or does not have the right mission alignment, obtaining the desired culture will be a challenge.  Also, like the old saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”  If your employees choose not to embrace and follow the culture, then it will not materialize.  However, leadership (and management) must first set the environment and this is why culture begins with leadership.

Building a Culture of Continuous Improvement is a multi-issue article that will span the next several months.  Next month, we will focus on crafting your continuous improvement strategy.


    October 22, 2021 - 8:15 am

    Excellent perspective! As my mentor John Maxwell states, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” If we think we’re leading and turn around to find no one is following then we’re just out for a walk. Leadership engagement and connection with the team members is critical. Thanks for sharing such great insight!

    • John

      October 22, 2021 - 11:48 am

      Leadership, sometimes, gets a bad rap. I recognize that it takes employees to make it happen. Some employees just don’t want to budge, when it comes to change. However, when it comes to establishing a culture, it really does start with leadership setting the foundation, walking the talk, and holding everyone accountable.

  2. Maribel Márquez Jordan

    October 27, 2021 - 11:10 pm

    Tener expectativas objetivos y metas para orientar el trabajo defendiendo un futuro deseado para mejorar y organizar un buen trabajo.

  3. Johnny Piela

    November 10, 2021 - 1:29 pm

    Great article. Love that you mention how despite it being leadership’s responsibility to set the culture, they can only work within the confines of what the employees are willing to accept. Love how you emphasize that the vaues of the leadership trickle down throughout the entire organization. Looking forward to the next article!

  4. Jonathan Wiederecht

    November 29, 2021 - 10:04 am

    John – though you didn’t state it as such, your discussion seems to imply to me that culture can be directed, can be legislated. Leadership’s behaviors drive culture. If you want to individuals to follow standard work, then role model with LSW. If you want individuals to get to root cause of an issue, then practice that yourself. Yes, to have a culture of continuous improvement requires all to exemplify that behavior, but all to often Leadership provides little more than lip service. I’m certain that wasn’t what you were trying to convey but I couldn’t get out of the rut from the first portion of your blog. Respectfully, Jon

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