Crafting Your Continuous Improvement Strategy

This article was written by John Knotts, a Senior Coach here at Gemba Academy

Two months ago, we started our journey on building a culture of continuous improvement. We know that continuous improvement brings many benefits to an organization. We also know that leaders set the environment for a culture of continuous improvement.

Creating a continuous improvement culture provides a strategic advantage for any company and should be implemented by following a specific strategy.

I recently had a meeting with a couple of executives to discuss changing their organizational culture to one of continuous improvement. They started out by asking if we could build a one-to two-hour training program to provide awareness so that they could change the culture.

Yes, the belief out there is that if you tell people how important something is and give them a slight understanding of it, that it will happen. Let me tell you that, “If you build it, they will come,” only happens in the movies.

Building a culture of continuous improvement starts with developing a strategy that involves measuring work, improving work, and changing work. The strategy is only effective when your employees have commitment to the organization and understand how to be innovative.

The reason I say “strategy” is because this type of culture does not happen overnight. This can take years to build. The larger the organization, the more difficult it is to make it happen, and the longer it could take. Many people want to just jump in and start teaching classes, certifying people, building dashboards, and the like.

That is a program…not a culture!

The first step in building this type of culture is to identify the types of behaviors that you expect your employees to exhibit on a regular basis. Five years from now, if you were to come back to your organization, what would you expect and hope to see?

Here are some ideas of the potential behaviors of a continuous improvement culture:

  • Employees, at all levels, use daily metrics to understand their business and make decisions
  • All metrics, at the lowest level, roll up into aggregated measures that easily allow for pinpointing of problems
  • Employees, at all levels, know exactly what they do and how it supports their mission
  • All employees that do the same job, do the job the exact same way every time
  • All employees are continuously improving their processes based on data-driven decisions
  • Employees are fully engaged in organizational suggestion programs by submitting ideas and getting involved in discussing and implementing the submitted ideas
  • Clear and validated return on investment and benefits for all process improvements have been identified and are visible to all

Understanding what you want your organization to look like when the culture is fully implemented might benefit from a few company tours. In San Antonio, Texas, I have taken leadership teams to the Toyota Tundra Factory and we have also gone to the HEB Central Pharmacy. We additionally toured a print plant that we worked with that had poor quality compared to Toyota and HEB. This provided the leadership with ideas around things like visual controls, standard work, reporting, dashboards, automation, one-piece flow, etc.

Using appreciative inquiry, after the tours, the leadership discussed what they liked, what they felt they could apply, and what might work best in their organization. This helped paint a picture of the organizational culture they were looking for.

This is a great start for your organization – doing your research. Read books about building a culture of quality and understand different methods, like Continental and The Toyota Way. Understanding what you are trying to build is the important first step to your strategy development.

Outlining a strategy is done by determining the steps to close the gap between where you are today and where you want to be. Evaluating current behaviors of leaders, middle managers, employees, the CEO/President, suppliers, partners, and even your customers, will highlight the gaps that you might need to close.

Here is a general framework I would recommend you follow to build a culture of continuous improvement.

Let me briefly outline the activities that will occur in the strategy – specifics would be based on your gap assessment and your strategy decisions to close the gaps.

Foundation.

I already talked about most of this step above. Here you determine what the end-result culture looks like in your organization – Stephen Covey’s, “Begin with the End in Mind.” Do your research and figure out what behaviors you are looking to create through this culture. Understand what the current behaviors look like and then hold a strategy session to build out your plan. This provides you a foundation from which to launch from and gives you an idea of scope and time involved.

Approach.

Every good continuous improvement culture that I have seen, had a framework to operate in. They normally call it something special, they have an operating model, they have defined everything, etc. Look at The Toyota Way – they have their “14 Management Principles” and the “Toyota Production System (TPS).” Establishing your framework and operating structure or model is very important to brand your effort and align everyone. Just simply saying, “You’re going to do Lean Six Sigma,” will lose bluster quickly. You need something that will last and something that you can rally around. The Air Force had the Quality Air Force approach from the late 80’s to late 90’s. Now they use Air Force Smart Operations for the 21st Century (AFSO21).

WIIFM.

Once you know what it looks like (this step and the next can overlap with the previous step), you want to build an awareness of the changes and a desire to move toward the new behaviors. Many people feel that process improvement will mean they end up eliminating their jobs or doing more with less. These are negative messages that you must overcome. Understanding the case for change is a John Kotter basic change principle in his book, Leading Change. If you cannot define the need to change, then you will have trouble building an awareness in your employees. Desire is formed from an understanding of What’s In It For Me (WIIFM). If this is a way to cut resources, you will have a hard sell. If you can identify the positives for everyone, then you will work toward their desires. All change is normally seen as negative by most people, so you must always outline the positives.

New Habits.

Be prepared to take the next step as you build the awareness and desire because your early adopters will dive in and ask, “What’s next?” and “Where do I sign up?” If they are ready to go, but you have not defined how you are going to implement, you will stall out your most motivated change champions. This would be akin to not building it, and they still came – not good. Do you have appropriate levels of training, is the structure to run this in place, do you have leadership in line and on board to support, do you have required positions to do the heavy lifting, etc.? These basics need to be in place at the start, or well on their way through development, because when your people are ready, they are ready.

Drive the Change.

After you have defined the foundation, you need to establish repeatable ways to measure, recognize, reward, reinforce, celebrate, and communicate the activity. You should continuously leverage these methods throughout your culture change, and they should become the norm in your organization to sustain the culture. Every organization is different in how it does this, so you need to determine this while building the foundation. Some of the things you need to build might take time or need data and information. However, having the framework and an approach is a good start.

If you notice in the strategic framework I provided above, the last arrows continue. This means, at this point, you simply continue to work at the culture and refine your activities. Once it is built, you cannot simply put it on autopilot and walk away. You need to constantly manage, sustain, and evolve the effort.

Building this type of culture begins with a strategy. I have provided a strategic framework to help you develop your own culture change. Remember that this type of effort is long term in nature and very strategic. It is also a very deliberate action that requires a great deal of work. Anyone can put a program in place, but to really change behaviors requires a totally different level of effort.

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

2 Comments

  1. Jenn

    January 14, 2022 - 10:09 am
    Reply

    Can you recommend an approach for an organizational suggestion program for a manufacturing organization with approx 180 people? We had a program that we set up in MS Access that was ‘overautomated’ and very unwieldy to easy manage. As the site OpEx leader, I’d like to get back to basics on idea management. Any suggestions for benchmarking?

  2. Dr Jake Abraham

    January 19, 2022 - 4:40 pm
    Reply

    Hi Jenn.
    Try this simple method – that I have done in the Toyota Manufacturing World and some of the other Manufacturing Operations. Just teach people the 7+ 1 Waste and then ask them – every month – go and see in their processes or areas of work – 1 – yes just 1 waste they can find – capture via photo the current state (before state of that “wasteful condition” and then do the improvements – by self, or with team and with supervisor-and then capture the new state as a photo. Put these before and after photos on a power point slide and post it with the names of people who found them – to show the improvements and perhaps connecting to the 7+1 waste category – to reinforce the learning. Maybe if you want to track these – then just capture these small improvements on a excel spread sheet every month with the names of people. Then management can review all these and recognize and reward all these good ideas with some good tokens of appreciations and even get some of them presented at your shop floor or management meetings. Try something simple first…and get the passion going. Just my humble thoughts to your very good question. Thanks and Aloha. Dr Jake

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