Changing culture for the best, one step at a time

Building a culture of continuous improvement begins with adopting a strategy that works for your organization. This strategy must be aligned with the existing business model, workflows, and culture of the organization.

Additionally, all the major stakeholders need to be bought into the strategy for it to be effective. And while every organization is unique, the steps required to build a continuous improvement culture are the same.

Here are 11 steps to building and nurturing a continuous improvement culture in your organization:

1) Begin with the end in mind

The start of every initiative needs to begin with the end in mind. You need to understand your company’s existing culture and the business model as it exists today. Once you have established the current state, imagine what the future of the company can look like in the best-case and most optimistic scenario.

From this futuristic and optimistic state, determine what the company can realistically achieve in the next 1, 3, and 5 years. Your target for the future should lie somewhere between the realistic and optimistic vision of the company.

Once you have set the goal, work with your team to determine how to get the company from its current state (point A) to the future you have envisioned (point B). To do this effectively start asking the following questions:

  • What are the key performance indicators for the company?
  • What does performance look now versus in the future state?
  • How much of an improvement should the company make on a monthly and annually basis to achieve the targets?
  • What are the behaviors that you want to promote in your company?
  • What are the core competencies of your team today?
  • What are the core competencies do your team needs to have in the future state?
  • What type of leadership is necessary in the future state?
  • How can you promote and develop leaders within your organization to be prepare for the future state?

Figuring out exactly where you want to head and the behaviors necessary to go there is the first step in developing a continuous improvement culture. The end goal should be difficult enough to provoke a sense of urgency. It should also be attainable since goals that are too out of reach can lead to hopelessness and inaction.

2) Communicate, communicate, communicate

Once the targets for continuous improvement have been developed, you need to get buy-in from key stakeholders and communicate the message across your organization. The feedback from your stakeholders is very important and will allow you to refine your targets.

It is essential that you put your goals in writing and allow everyone in the organization to have access to it. Only by having a shared vision and shared understanding of the mission can the whole organization move towards achieving the goals.

Remember, just about the time you are tired of communicating, others are just starting to get the message. There is no such thing as overcommunication.

3) Have a framework

Every continuous improvement program needs a process. A process or a framework for improvement is an operating model and set of procedures that when executed correctly will lead to the development, analysis, and adoption of improvement ideas.

Several successful frameworks for continuous improvement programs already exist such as the Toyota Production System (TPS). Within TPS, there are a number of management principles, philosophies, and tools that can be used in any continuous improvement program. Some key concepts include: Kaizen, Plan-Do-Check-Act, 8 wastes, 5S, Gemba, etc. It is not necessary to know all these concepts at once.

The important thing is not necessarily which framework you use as much as it is just deciding on one and implementing it so that everyone is on the same page.

However, the more knowledge you have about TPS the more inspiration and opportunities for improvement that you can identify on a daily basis.

4) Educate and spread awareness

People are only as effective as the tools that they have available. Continuous improvement is not a natural phenomenon in organizations. The only way to enable and empower employees to embark on this journey is to educate them on the process and the benefits of continuous improvement.

Several tools within TPS such as visual management, 5S, Kanban, etc. can be taught within an afternoon and the effects can be seen almost immediately. It is important to note that people’s memories wane over time and other priorities may get in the way of the continuous improvement program. As a result, training and education needs to be on-going.

For some people the training can be an introduction to continuous improvement concepts and tools. For others, it can be a reminder of the practices and behaviors that they should exhibit on a daily basis.

5) Make change everyone’s responsibility

Continuous improvement requires the participation of everyone in the organization. This includes the executive suite, management, and line workers. The continuous improvement program becomes effective when employees are engaged in developing the culture and are proactive in identifying areas for improvement.

To do this, everyone should understand their role and contribution to company’s continuous improvement program. Only by “rowing” together can the goals of the improvement program be achieved. Part of working together on this effort is sharing the responsibility of the program across the entire organization.

6) Improve communication

A continuous improvement program will lead to changes. Changes are generally positive when it improves the efficiency of working processes. However, if the changes are not well managed or well communicated this can lead to disorder and chaos. People who are unaware of the new process improvements may do things the old-fashion way while others work with the new process.

This hybrid model can lead to problems and inefficiencies. If this problem persists, the organization may be reluctant to continue the continuous improvement efforts since each change leads to more work, disturbances in existing workflows, and overall chaos. One effective way of communicating changes is by documenting standards, best practices and lessons learned.

Another important aspect to improving communication is to have a process for getting feedback. This is critical to your continuous improvement process.

7) Stay cautious and don’t rush

A continuous improvement program requires a lot of work. Much more so than first-time leaders estimate. It is important to prioritize initiatives and not rush into too many changes at once. During the first 6 months to 1 year, keep track of the amount of effort that it takes to start, spread, and sustain initiatives. This will give you a good indicator of how many improvement opportunities your team can handle at any given time. Doing too much at once can lead to sloppiness in work delivery and cause more problems later on.

8) Measure outcomes

A good continuous improvement program will yield positive outcomes. It is important to quantify these outcomes. The more positive results that arise from your continuous improvement efforts, the more energy and momentum that your program gains. Positive outcomes will encourage upper management to invest more into the program and pay more attention to it. Employees will be excited about the impact and contribution that they are making for the company.

9) Celebrate success

Continuous improvement is hard. It requires employees to critically think about their work and examine potential ways of improving it. As your continuous improvement program begin to gain more momentum it is important to remember the people who make it possible. One way of sustaining the process is to regularly share success stories and recognize those involved. Many employees take pride in their work and are intrinsically motivated to improve them. They are simply looking for recognition and praise for a job well done.

10) Create new habits and behaviors

Creating a continuous improvement culture requires changing people’s habits and their behaviors. Habits are the set of things that people do subconsciously on a daily basis. They are in fact very difficult to change. The trick is to replace the old habits with new and improved habits.

Part of the challenge of starting and sustaining a continuous improvement program is identifying a set of desired behaviors and continuously reinforce them. This can include training and retraining employees, helping people understand when their behaviors are misaligned with the continuous improvement efforts, and giving positive feedback to those who exemplifies the desired behaviors. Remember; all learning equals behavior change so the goal of any education or training program should be to change behaviors.

This is an important concept since by very definition, culture is the collective behaviors of the leaders and managers in the organization.

11) Rinse and repeat

Building a culture of continuous improvement takes time and does not happen instantly. It takes several years of deliberate planning and action. It is also not an initiative that can be “finished”.

As a general rule, all things decay and rust over time if they are not properly taken care of. This analogy also applies to your continuous improvement culture. Just as your house or car requires regular maintenance to perform at its optimal condition, your continuous improvement culture also requires regular attention and care.

Some things that can keep the culture going include: 1) on-going training and development of employees, 2) development of leaders who believe in the process, 3) having corporate policies and incentives that are aligned with your improvement goals, and 4) recognizing the people who are doing good work and showing them their contributions to the organization.

Continuous improvement is a powerful force that works behind the scenes at the world’s most successful companies. Every day, it fosters evolution and innovation. It’s continuous improvement, a process that’s essential for long-term business success.

Christopher Jones is a trusted advisor to leaders with the ability to align strategy with tactics, drive leadership development and corporate-wide change efforts.