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Building A Culture Of Continuous Improvement Part Two

By Steve Kane Updated on February 4th, 2022

This article was written by John Knotts, a Senior Coach here at Gemba Academy. This is the fourth in a series of five articles written by John.  The previous three are hyperlinked below:

Over the last three months, we have covered three topics related to developing the strategy to build a continuous improvement culture in your business.  They were as follows:

1. Building A Culture of Continuous Improvement.

2. A Culture of Continuous Improvement Begins with Leadership.

3. Crafting Your Continuous Improvement Strategy.

However, let us face it…without the proper organizational structure, you will constantly be fighting an uphill battle to build this type of culture.

The worst thing created by organizational growth is the deadly “Silo!”  Call it what you like, silo, sandbox, camp, etc., these structures always tend to inhibit improvement in any organization.  In 2019, I released my first business book, Overcoming Organizational Myopia: Breaking Through Siloed Organization.  To fully understand how to breakthrough siloed organizations, read this book, but for now, let us simply talk about organizing for the purpose of continuous improvement.

If you have never heard the term, “Form Follows Function,” it was originally coined by Louis Sullivan.  This saying was from the 1930s and was related to architectural design – which was one of my younger interests.  However, as I learned more about organizational design, I discovered its practical applicability to this discipline as well.  Form Meets Function, in reference to this article, is about organizing with the emphasis of continuous improvement across your organization.

Have you ever worked in an organization that was organized around a function, product, or service?

I am sure that you are probably raising your hand right about now.

We traditionally organize around these facets in business.  This creates silos in our organization.  These silos tend to lose focus on the delivery of the product or service to the end customer.  Some of these silos can become so far removed from the customer that they totally lose their attachment to the mission of delivering the company’s product or service.

In the Air Force, we had a saying for this – “Too far removed from the flight line.”

In the Houston Chronicle, this was said about organizational structure on productivity.

“The structure of an organization sets the hierarchy for responsibility and creates the various levels of communication within an organization.  The manner in which an organizational structure is set up and administered can have a direct effect on company productivity.”

What I have found, over my past 30 years of experience, is the organizational structure is normally one of the first things that needs to change.  And, if you want to build a culture of continuous improvement, it is, by far, one of the hardest things to change.

But…there is a way.

It all starts with a simple inventory…and I mean simple.  All you need to do is go around to your management and ask this question:

What do you do?

You notice that I said management…not your individual contributors.  They have a job…everyone is doing redundant work.  Do not guess at what everyone is doing, ask the question!

What you will find, nine times out of ten, is the management and those senior management-types (non-manager managers) are all doing the same thing for different processes.

Write it all down.  This is your enemy to a culture of continuous improvement!

You need to know your enemy!  Your first task is to identify the redundancy across your organization – redundancy creates variance and waste.  These two things need to be eliminated if you plan to focus on continuous improvement.  I have found that for every ten people in your organization that is organized incorrectly, you can free up the work of approximately one person if you eliminate the redundancy in the organization.

Have you ever heard of Porter’s Value Chain?  Porter’s approach focused on creating profit margin, but I want you to think about creating value from the customer’s point of view.

Now that you have a list of what everyone says they do…flip it.  What do they deliver to the customer?  What is their value proposition to the customer?  Align, end-to-end, the “functions” in a value stream of what your organization does to deliver to the customer.

Are you organized that way now…I highly doubt it?

This is a “barrier” to developing the culture we are setting out to create.  It is time to smartly reorganize to ensure form meets function.  Without this, you will have a structure that is built on redundancy and have missed a very important point of the strategic change for continuous improvement.

Strategy is important to building a continuous improvement culture, but without the right organizational structure, you have set yourself up for a difficult ride.  Take some time to inventory what specifically your management does and look for ways to eliminate redundancy.  Then, align your operation to a value chain from the customer’s point of view.  Organizationally, you will be ready and equipped to start to build your new culture.

Building a Culture of Continuous Improvement is a multi-issue article that will span the next several months.  Next month, we will focus on understanding the “Continuous Improvement Culture Model.”


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