Continuous improvement is a term that is used frequently in business nowadays. No doubt, that there is increasing attention being paid to the benefits that continuous improvement can offer. If you’re somebody who is looking to either adopt a new continuous improvement strategy, or build upon an existing one, you’ve probably heard about the importance of people and culture.
Culture is fast becoming recognised as one of the most important factors in an effective continuous improvement strategy. So how can we make sure our culture is conducive for continuous improvement? And what exactly does a continuous improvement culture look like?
In this article, we’re going to examine some of the key facets of continuous improvement, and how this relates to culture. We’ll outline what exactly a continuous improvement culture looks like. We’ll then discuss some of the ways you can maximise your continuous improvement culture. Before we talk about culture, it’s useful to first explain what exactly we mean by continuous improvement.
Continuous improvement refers to the ongoing effort to improve all elements of an organization.
You may have heard of the term Kaizen. Kaizen is a japanese word - meaning ‘change for the better’. This is where continuous improvement has its roots, and it's easy to see why. Companies that have successfully embraced Kaizen include Toyota, Nestle and Lockhead Martin. Their results speak for themselves, and have certainly contributed to the growing popularity of continuous improvement.
A continuous improvement strategy will typically be made up of several smaller projects. Each project will usually focus on a specific area for improvement. Continuous improvement will often embrace incremental changes - small improvements which over time amount to significant amounts. Continuous improvement will also consider larger, more disruptive changes. We refer to these as radical changes.
One of the reasons that continuous improvement considers smaller, incremental changes is because of the compounding effect. As each improvement is made, the total productivity of the organisation grows. This means that each change has a proportionally greater impact than the last. This is why continuous improvement can be so attractive. Over a long period of time, the compounding effect leads to larger and larger improvements.
There are a few key factors that make up a successful continuous improvement strategy. Some of these include: technologies, organisational structure, resource dedication and strategic alignment. By far the most important however is people and culture.
When talking about culture, it can be difficult to pinpoint an exact definition. This is because culture in itself is an abstract concept that cannot be scientifically measured. Having said this, it is almost universally agreed that culture is a significant factor, so let’s explain more about what we mean by culture.
Culture is the values, beliefs, assumptions and ways of working that resonate throughout an organisation. You may have also heard the term ‘paradigm’. Paradigms refer to a set of ideas or beliefs which define a way of working - what some refer to as a ‘school of thought’.
Culture and paradigms are both significant and intertwined in an organisation. Culture underpins the attitudes found within individuals operating in organisations. Paradigms therefore are manifestations of the culture in an organisation. It's the paradigms that will have direct practical implications in ways of operating.
An example that illustrates the differences could be as follows. A company has a culture of ‘risk adversity’ due to the fact that it is highly regulated. Because of this underlying culture, a paradigm has formed where new technologies and practices are avoided.
Now, let's say that a new technology comes to market that has the potential to increase productivity by 10%. The fact that the culture of the company is averse to risks and therefore avoids new technology means they turn it down. The company has lost out on a significant productivity gain due to their culture.
Hopefully the example gives you a taste of why culture is such an important part of continuous improvement. Though the example is specific, it highlights an overarching culture of ‘reluctance to change’ that can be found in many organisations.
It may be the case that organisations will see themselves as forward-thinking and open to change. Likewise, there may be individuals within the organisation who are open to change, where others may not be. Usually, this is not enough of a driving force to promote a true continuous improvement culture. This is partly because of how continuous improvement is often interpreted.
As previously mentioned, continuous improvement will often focus on incremental changes. These changes are often marginal, and won’t appear to be significant from the outset. As also mentioned, continuous improvement's key value offering is through the ‘compounding effect’, something that can take a long time to achieve. This often creates situations where continuous improvement is viewed as a cost centre. A risky activity, with little being returned on their investment.
The opinions of others in your organisation may initially be seen as an afterthought when conducting continuous improvement. Some may naively assume that their efforts will outway the negative opinions of others. This however, is rarely the case. Continuous improvement can be applied to any organisational function. Changes can often have a far flung impact that crosses departmental boundaries. Successful continuous improvement therefore requires commitment and participation from a variety of key stakeholders. It’s therefore vital to have these key stakeholders committed and ready to embrace continuous improvement.
It should also be noted that disruption to traditional ways of working is a natural part of continuous improvement. Like any new type of project, there is risk associated. This is usually expressed in cost or time. What is usually understated however is the disruption to traditional working practices. Humans are creatures of habit, and embracing change can be difficult when things have been that way for years. Having a culture that understands and embraces disruption of working patterns for a greater goal is therefore vital, if you want to keep your key stakeholders on side.
So now we understand how culture can impact the success of a continuous improvement strategy, let's take a look at what a strong continuous improvement culture looks like. A strong continuous improvement culture will usually have the following:
One example of a company that has a strong continuous improvement culture is Amazon. By making continuous improvement a key part of their business strategy, they have successfully embedded a continuous improvement culture throughout the whole organisation.
The current culture of your organisation may not be exactly where you want it to be. This is fine, most won’t be. The next section will suggest some ways for you to integrate a positive continuous improvement culture into your strategy.
A strong and integrated continuous improvement culture, like many things, starts with education. Before embarking on your continuous improvement strategy, all individuals should be aware of the activities that are going to be undertaken and why.
Making individuals aware of the benefits of continuous improvement, and the long-term commitment that is required in order to realise said benefits is key. Measuring and communicating the results of your continuous improvement will help motivate stakeholders. Try to establish KPIs that hold relevance to your specific stakeholders.
Engaging with employees, and receiving feedback throughout is vital for 2 reasons. The first, is that feedback on projects from every corner of the organisation is valuable. There will always be blindspots in your own metrics. Areas that can be difficult to quantitatively measure may be picked up by different individuals in different departments. These factors can often play a major factor in a project's success, so considering this feedback is important.
The second, is that simply by engaging with employees in a way that values their opinion is likely to encourage buy-in. Employees are reassured that you’re working in their best interests, and are looking to qualify this by gathering their opinions. This can build stakeholder support, which as mentioned is critical to successful continuous improvement.
Lastly, we would suggest aiming to minimise disruption to working and risks associated with projects. This can be achieved through writing out a continuous improvement plan. In the plan, you may look to assign ‘pilot programmes’, which pilot continuous improvement projects over a small section of the organisation as a test case. This serves to gather data on whether the project is likely to be a success, while minimizing the risks or disruption. Having a plan is also a good idea in order to convince c-level stakeholders of the budgetary or resource requirements. It can also serve to guide your projects success routes, providing a benchmark to compare expected results to realised benefits.
In this article, we’ve looked at why culture is important for continuous improvement, what you should aim for, and some ways for how you can go about improving continuous improvement culture.
If there are any key takeaways from this, it should be that communication and building time into your strategy are the most important things. A continuous improvement manager's biggest task is often convincing others of the value of their work, so bear this in mind in everything you do.
At Intuitix, we help organisations realise the benefits of their continuous improvement projects. We then automate the process of communicating the relevant details to various stakeholders. If you’d like to find out more about what we do, head over to our contact us page, and one of our team will get back to you.