Insights from the 6 key principles of implementation

All great companies have continuous improvement ingrained into their culture. Why is this? Well, it is because they know that it’s the only true sustainable competitive advantage.

All organizations, large and small, are facing increasing pressure for higher levels of productivity, return on investment, shareholder value and other measures of performance. These pressures means that organizations must continue to improve, not only through innovation involving their products and services, but also from continuing to refine their systems and processes.

So what is continuous improvement?

Continuous improvement is an ongoing effort to improve all elements of an organization. The continuous improvement model reflects the idea that organizations should undertake incremental improvements to services, products, and processes.

There are a host of methodologies that businesses use to bring structure to the process of identifying and acting upon opportunities for improvement. You may be familiar with Six Sigma, Kaizen, Lean, Toyota Production System, and others. Although these methodologies differ, the heart of each of them is the continuous improvement model.

Simply put, it rests on the key belief that a steady stream of improvements, diligently executed, will have transformational results. Thankfully there are a few core principles of practice to guide its application…

Why a Culture of Continuous Improvement is critical to your organization.

According to The Lean Way, there are 5 major benefits to implementing a continuous improvement culture.

Benefit 1: More engaged employees

Benefit 2: Lower employee turnover

Benefit 3: More competitive products & services

Benefit 4: Better customer service

Benefit 5: Having a proactive learning culture

6 Principles of the Continuous Improvement Model

Principle 1. Improvements are based on small changes, not only on major initiatives or new innovations

This concept is important because large changes often feel frightening and destabilizing to organizations. By approaching change in small, incremental steps, the continuous improvement model reduces the fear factor and increases speed to improvement. When following this principle, the organization does not need to wait for a major strategic shift or a new product or service launch to begin to advance.

Principle 2. Involve everyone

The continuous improvement model relies greatly on employees, not only top management, to identify critical opportunities for improvement. This bottom-up improvement is effective because employees are closest to the problems, and thus better equipped to solve them.

When thinking of these two principles, consider the value of engaging your staff. If you were to ask everyone in the organization for ideas to create a new product line or revolutionize the way they care for their customers, you’re not going to get anything; staff members are focused on their own day-to-day work. They, understandably, can’t come up with monumental ideas at the drop of a hat!

Instead, ask people what improvement they could make that would save them 5 minutes a day. Then empower them to implement that improvement, and spread it to everyone else in the organization doing the same process. In this way, you can take a small idea that anyone could come up with and drive a big impact. For example, say you get one idea from ten employees, each of which saves them five minutes per day. That’s ten ideas. Share all ten of those improvements with one hundred other employees so that every one of them is now saving fifty minutes per day (10 ideas x 5 minutes each).

By asking people for a small idea that shaves 5 minutes off their day and propagating their ideas around the organization, you’re about to save 3.4 YEARS of manpower with the ideas of just 10 people. Imagine how much you would save if you extended the “ask” of a five minute idea to your entire organization!

Another way to encourage employees to spot opportunities and implement improvements is to ask “What would you do differently?”.

Most complaints involve a gap between the current state and the employee’s idea of how things should be. Sometimes the includes a specific recommendation. It might go something like, “If they would just do X, Y, and Z, the problem would be solved.” Sometimes there is no solution included. You might hear, “There’s got to be something they could do to fix this!”

Did you notice the operative word in each of these examples? They. When employees are disempowered and disconnected from the improvement process, all they can do is wait for “They” (management) to recognize and correct problems. When that doesn’t happen it’s natural (and probably healthy) for people to express their frustration.

Leaders who adopt the continuous improvement model don’t shy away from employee complaints.

Quite the contrary, they embrace them as opportunities for improvement. If a team member notices something amiss and says something about it, that’s a good thing. That’s the beginning of the improvement cycle. Companies with a culture of improvement take it even further. They give employees a process for reporting and acting upon ideas to save money, improve processes, satisfy clients, and improve quality. What’s more, they provide systems and structure for doing so and they recognize those who contribute to making the organization better one small initiative at a time.

People are often told not to complain about something unless they are willing to do something about it. That’s only fair when there is something they can do. Good leaders give people that opportunity.

Principle 3. Incremental improvements are typically inexpensive to implement

Employees tend to focus on small changes that can be accomplished without a lot of expense. In fact, many ideas from employees involve eliminating processes, rather than adding them, which is an excellent way to be sure that every activity adds some value to the customer and reduces wasted effort.

Principle 4. Employees take ownership and are involved in improvement

Getting people to change the way they’ve always done things is hard. Do you know what makes it easier?

Rolling out changes that originated from the front lines.

When people come up with the ideas to improve their own work, they intrinsically see the value of the changes. Knowing that improvements come from their peers inspires faith in the necessity of the changes.

By engaging your team in the continuous improvement model, you empower them to take charge of their own work (but you help them as leaders). They’re able to identify problems or opportunities for improvement, follow through on implementing their ideas, take credit for the work, and see a measurable impact from their efforts. In this way, the sole burden of improvement is lifted from managers, who can spend their time more effectively coaching staff on improvement techniques and removing barriers to implementing changes.

Because the continuous improvement model relies on employees for ideas for improvement, they become more invested in the outcome of the change, and employee engagement increases. This increases the chance of successful, sustainable improvement.

Principle 5. Improvement requires a feedback loop

Constant feedback is an important aspect of the continuous improvement model. Open communication during every phase of executing an improvement is critical to both the final results of the improvement and to the maintenance of employee engagement.

Admittedly, this is tough to pull off in a traditional improvement culture. Coaches don’t have the visibility they need to keep up with everyone doing the improvement work, senior leaders can’t engage without a major time commitment, meetings are tough to schedule, and communication gets buried in inboxes.

Organizations with a more modern approach to improvement have a continuous improvement platform to improve visibility and team collaboration, giving coaches access to the reports they need to evaluate performance and target coaching. Senior leaders can follow the improvements that matter to them and engage quickly and easily. Staff can get the help they need from their managers without having to wait for a meeting or a email. Essentially, a continuous improvement platform gets everyone on the same page by improving visibility and streamlining communication.

Principle 6. Improvement is measurable and repeatable

It is not enough to simply make a change and call it improvement. To achieve real improvement, the impact of change must be measured. This makes it possible to determine if the change can be applied successfully to other problems. Proving positive ROI also helps keep the organization aligned around improvement.

Making continuous improvement part of company culture is an excellent and cost-effective approach to tackling an organization’s most difficult challenges.

By tracking and measuring it, you are also able to document the lessons learned, which in turn, can then be used when you need to rinse and repeat the process.

In the long run, the only way to maintain and sustain a continuous improvement culture is to focus on developing new competencies. By applying continuous improvement, organizations can challenge their employees to improve their skills and knowledge. This will ultimately allow the company to stay one step ahead of its competitors.

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