2 key focus areas to ensure success on your continuous improvement journey

A continuous improvement journey never ends. Rather, the distributed think-tank that is an organization’s continuous improvement culture will always find new opportunities and better ways of doing things. Destinations only punctuate this journey, but the desire to improve never stops.

Unfortunately, many continuous improvement plans derail before they can deliver actual value. Here, we look at how this stagnation can be avoided.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, the late Dr Satya Chakravorty compared a continuous improvement journey to a weight loss programme – “it starts off well, but all too often fails to have a lasting impact as participants gradually lose motivation and fall back into old habits,” he wrote.

Companies cannot just have an improvement burst and then “relax” and enjoy the benefits. The initial efforts must be continued and potentially intensified. Above all, they need to maintain their gains – no matter how small – at every step of the journey toward continuous improvement. This is the only way to stay competitive.

Continuous improvement efforts often stall when overzealous senior leadership introduces too many constraints too early. Therefore, leaders and managers need to guide their teams through substantial step-change improvements gradually. Remember: continuous improvement is a journey, not a destination.

To achieve sustainable success on the continuous improvement journey, organizations should focus on two key areas – establishing a continuous improvement culture among coworkers and embracing the CI management cycle.


Build a sustainable continuous improvement journey

Continuous improvement is one of the key ingredients of a healthy organizational culture. It plays a critical role in achieving operational excellence because CI becomes its DNA once it’s absorbed and integrated into an organization.

However, for many organizations developing a CI culture is highly challenging. Leaders need to understand that culture isn’t just a corporate initiative vested in the HR function. Good senior leaders must steer the ship and make sure prevailing winds don’t blow the organization off course.

The road map to an embedded CI culture lies in leadership commitment. Aligning leadership teams behind each project and confirming their sponsorship and involvement is one of the most fundamental factors affecting the improvement process.

Engaged leadership is arguably the most important determinant of success when it comes to inspiring a culture of sustainable continuous improvement. Organizations with leaders who invest in employee engagement, enabling technology, lean tools and the consistent implementation of regimented improvement methodology have the best chance of facilitating the cultural change toward a continuous improvement mindset.

Perhaps the most suitable type of leader who can successfully create a culture of continuous improvement is the lean leader, who can mentor new leaders to shephard the cultural future. Lean leaders aren’t afraid to distribute power, instil a sense of ownership and are open to experimentation.


Involvement in the journey of continuous improvement entails:
  • Leading by doing
  • Listening to all ideas
  • Asking the right questions
  • Regularly reviewing key CI projects and surfacing those perceived to be flying ‘‘under the radar’’
  • Empowering all employees to make improvements

Once leadership is committed to the critical role they play in successful improvement programmes, they must then clearly define the company’s future direction by establishing a strategic plan that defines the business objectives, priorities and improvement targets.

It’s critical to get employees committed to and involved in making the change. They need an opportunity to ask questions and provide feedback. This is a decisive process to creating the understanding, buy-in and alignment needed to achieve overall business objectives.

Every employee needs to share the CI vision, which is about focusing on the customer and making the word “improvement” part of the company’s DNA. The competitive advantage starts growing when employees understand and are directly involved in achieving best practice maturity.

Furthermore, it’s no secret that continuous improvement is one of the building blocks of incremental and sustained innovation. One need not look further than “The Toyota Way”, the automaker’s legendary set of principles, behaviors and lean tools that underlie the corporation’s managerial approach, supply chain and production system.

The Toyota Way is the epitome of having continuous improvement embedded in its DNA. Since 1951, the company has constantly empowered employees to participate in improving their products, contributing to seamless productivity and automation on the factory floors. Now, 70 years and 40 million ideas later, Toyota proved that a culture that encourages employees to improve continuously is a massive enabler of innovation in the manufacturing industry and any organization.

Building and nurturing a culture of continuous improvement begins with developing and adopting a strategy that works for your organization.


Download the How-to Guide: Driving employee engagement on the CI journey to find out how to create a sustainable continuous improvement culture in your organization.



The CI management cycle

Executing the following four steps in the CI management cycle will help you achieve success on your continuous improvement journey.


1. Use targeted information to identify opportunities

It’s critical to recognize and define continuous improvement projects that enable best-in-class metrics to obtain maximum benefits. Improvement ideas can come from many sources, so cast the net wide and then analyze them using criteria agreed in advance.

The selected criteria should link to strategic improvement objectives and implementation benefits, such as reduced lead time, increased capacity, anticipated cost benefits, speed to implement and ease of implementation. Select improvements with the greatest potential to convert into CI projects. All these factors form part of the continuous improvement diagnostic journey.


2. Build a CI project portfolio

Portfolio management organizes a series of short-term improvement projects into a single portfolio consisting of reports that capture action objectives, timelines, accomplishments, resources, risks and other critical factors. Managers can then regularly review entire portfolios and allocate resources appropriately.

A key assumption of portfolio management is that many more projects are identified than the organization can execute. Therefore, project selectors will only want to select projects that support the continuous improvement strategy and goals.

This can be an iterative process with a review and prioritization of the projects as an ongoing activity. However, do not initially take on too many projects. Use a formal project management process, involving selection through a “project hopper” and management through a “project deck”, to manage and support improvement projects. Selectors will draw projects added to the deck from a range of sources, including process and value stream mapping as well as structured problem-solving exercises.

Be careful not to only focus on the low-hanging fruit (obvious options) as they may cause a false sense of progress. They often also don’t address the real problems or opportunities. While there’s still a time and place for these quick-win projects, rather make an effort to climb a bit higher to get to the fruit that matters. We recommend that you focus on projects that will take one to three months to complete.


3. Track and manage your projects

Tracking the status of your projects is essential for successful completion, but it involves more than just data reporting. Keeping everyone on track is critical, which requires project champions to coach their project teams effectively. Track the progress of each project as it passes through the five DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve and Control) problem-solving phases.

Strongly consider weekly reviews to maximize the use of the organization’s CI project portfolio. Using metrics and visual management helps keep CI projects focused on meeting business objectives. (Read the blog, Visual management: Why metrics matter in a digital world, to understand the fundamental part real-time visual management plays in employee empowerment and ownership.)

Since the improvement project aims to generate bottom-line improvements, it is essential to track the applicable key performance indicators and savings too (usually productivity, quality, cost and delivery metrics).

Tracking tools need to be responsive enough to detect the effectiveness of the improvements as well as the unintended consequences. Numerous tools are available to use in continuous improvement tracking, including control charts, histograms and trend analysis.


4. Review and align

Portfolio managers (project champions) need to establish the business focus and ensure consistent alignment of projects to goals. Remember, all opportunities are not equal – ultimately, the business strategy must inform them.

Continuous improvement tracking and constant review and coordination of (often limited) resource allocations are activities that can help you drive key projects forward and make informed decisions on any projects that need to be reconsidered.


The power of change

Change is compulsory to improve products, processes and services continuously. Aligning your people to your strategy becomes even more urgent when innovation drives change in your organization. Organizations agile in changing and improving usually find it easier to stay ahead of the tough competition and exceed their customers’ challenging expectations.

Cultural change gives employees the power and while CI culture is led from the top down, it is implemented from the bottom up. It’s only when leadership puts responsibility in the hands of frontline workers that they can take ownership and become accountable.

Therefore, ensuring that everyone knows and understands the shift in strategy – and what the change means for each person in their daily activities – is essential for a successful continuous improvement journey.

Download the How-to Guide: Managing change across the organization to find out how to ensure the success of your company’s change management efforts.