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Continuous improvement should not be that hard. So why do so few companies actually do it?

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Organizations that continuously improve their activities and find smarter and better ways to conduct business are the real game changers. They've figured out that the key to constant improvement is having a continuous improvement culture.

I know this might sound strange, but it’s not complex to start working on building a continuous improvement culture. It is, however, very hard to sustain this culture as it requires continuous commitment in time, money and people. And that is hard to do. A friend we used to work with once commented that "continuous improvement is hard to sustain because change is not a natural human state and makes people uncomfortable".

Demings Continuous Improvement CycleWe've all heard the too oft cited company inspirational slogans like “Employees are our most important asset” or “We are here to serve customers”. Unfortunately, these are often just words not backed up with the required behavior that would be needed to actually operationalize the promises. These just result in superficial changes which will have no lasting cultural impacts.

In a nutshell if you want to change the game you will need to continuously improve. To continuously improve you will need a continuous improvement culture. To sustain a continuous improvement culture you will need to continuously invest in it. 

What can be done to support this goal? Obviously “creating a culture” is something that won’t happen overnight. Actually, it’s near impossible to “create” a culture because culture largely escapes such attempts of top-down control. It is possible, however, to help people in shaping and producing the culture by providing the right environment where continuous improvement will be encouraged.

Here are a few things you can implement in your organization which in return will spur continuous improvement efforts.

  • Establish a rule where you will allocate 10%-20% of employee time just for improvements.
  • Change your employee’s performance goals to focus more on team and organizational goals.
  • Don’t sweat the big stuff. Instead concentrate on small improvements that can be made without significant organizational changes.
  • Make sure organization is tracking the correct performance improvements data.
  • Market your results throughout company to increase awareness.
  • Reward successes by providing non-financial (recognition, appreciation letters, day off) and financial (bonuses, raises, promotions) rewards. 
  • Invest in your employees so they can build their knowledge of problem solving and improvement techniques.
  • Organizational commitment must be for the long haul.

About a year ago we had a chance to learn about a large organization -- you would recognize the name if I mentioned it -- and its approach to continuous improvement. The company had been under intense pressure from competitors and felt compelled to make some big changes in its culture.

This company’s management launched a major continuous improvement effort and trained the entire staff. Employees were asked to submit their continuous improvement opportunities frequently. Each idea was sent to a central triage team that assigned it to a subject matter expert. A decision on whether to pursue the idea was made within a week, and the employee who submitted it was notified of the decision.

To ensure a steady stream of ideas, managers followed up with individual employees every few weeks to entice them to submit more ideas. Many employees told us that it was not until they saw how passionate management was about finding better ways of doing things that they finally realized the company was serious about continuous improvement.

Today, this organization is well on its way -- not just maintaining its status as a market leader but expanding its business into other areas as well. Because of management’s dedication to getting better, the company is developing a vibrant culture of continuous improvement. How many other companies would see more success if they did the same?

It is important to understand that the way employees -- including management and workers -- behave, think and believe determine the culture of an organization. A company’s culture, simply put, is what its people do when no one is watching, how they get the work done and how they speak about the company, among other things.

But developing a culture of continuous improvement is no small task. Very few companies are successful at nurturing this kind of workplace attitude over the long term.

Do you know of any companies that have achieved greater success through continuous improvement? Do you have tips or advice for creating a culture that values employee input and constantly works to improve? Please offer your comments below and share what you know with our readers.


Frank De Corte 2013-02-27
Excellent! There is resistance to change in every industry. A very enlightening book on change I recently read is Switch, by Dan and Chip Heath. I absolutely recommend it for the change agent seeking a fresh approach to change.
Charles Ankney 2013-02-27
Most companies who improve are making small, constant improvements that lead to large, infrequent breakthroughs.
Mike 2013-02-27
Our thoughts about continuous improvement:

It should be a slow, gradual process of change, no “sudden movements”.
It should be a continuous flow of change, no settling down into a rut.
It should be a culture, not a bunch of individuals with ideas.
It should be unanimously accepted.
It should be measurable.
It should be celebrated.
It should be evangelized.
There should be room for failure, and for success.
It should be rewarded.
It should be encouraged.
It should become default behavior.
It should be transparent.

Also, we have a post about continues improvement:
Don 2013-03-03
I was hired by a company once to help with processes and procedures. Although the title of the job was not continuous improvement manager, I think that the job description implied continuous improvement.
My job was to meet with different accountants and analysts and had them describe to me what their current processes and procedures were for various tasks. We discussed if there were ways to improve these processes, which included consolidating tasks that were similar, and also using automation.
Majority of recommendations were not implemented and I left this position after only 6 months.
NathanM 2013-03-04
Unfortunately in my organization the continues improvement is a buzz word that sends shivers down the spines of employees.

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