3 continuous improvement strategies for sustainability

Continuous improvement (CI) is a highly effective mindset, culture and toolkit for tackling rapid changes in the modern workplace. The challenge is to build continuous improvement strategies for sustainability; a system designed to harness ongoing performance improvement in the long term. This blog outlines three well-established principles of a successful CI implementation structure.

Achieving sustainable continuous improvement (CI) has been a challenge since the dawn of formalized CI systems, like the Toyota Production System in the 1980s. In fact, over 40% of companies implementing such programs don’t succeed in the long run. This results in substantial productivity, quality and compliance losses across industries.

Achieving sustainable continuous improvement isn’t just about executing a few improvement projects, even if it’s a good starting point. Driving sustainable results over time requires business leaders to bring continuous improvement into their existing governance models, among other things. But to truly flourish, they need to stick to three strategies for ensuring sustainable continuous improvement.


What are the continuous improvement strategies for sustainability?

Are the failures of CI systems due to a flaw in the methodology or are they more to do with how organizations attempt to implement it? Invariably, it’s by failing to adhere to one or more of the three well-established principles of a successful continuous improvement implementation structure:

  • Strategy and leadership
  • Implementation design
  • Organizational roles and responsibility

It’s therefore not the methods and aims of continuous improvement but how it is being implemented that most often results in failed CI efforts. Implementing continuous improvement needs to be more than just an exercise in better defining and adhering to processes.

A one-off revision of a process, without the systems and practices to continuously measure and revise it, is not sufficient to bring about lasting improvement.

To create a climate that empowers and equips people to drive sustainable transformation, each of the three continuous improvement strategies for sustainability should embody several critical success factors. Only then can real transformational changes take place.


Download the how-to guide Driving employee engagement on the CI journey for more on keeping your people committed to the CI vision.



  1. Align strategy and leadership

Good leadership underpins the successful development of any CI strategy. A successful and sustainable continuous improvement system requires a well-orchestrated plan to ensure that management and their teams realize positive change with confidence and consistency.

Organizations cannot cut back on planning before implementing changes, no matter the urgency. Nor can they copy and paste continuous improvement strategies used with success elsewhere.

Continuous improvement doesn’t happen overnight – an effective CI strategy requires long-term vision and commitment from the top down. Aligning organizational leaders behind each project and confirming their sponsorship and passionate commitment is a cornerstone of sustainable continuous improvement activities.

The road map to an embedded CI culture lies in leadership commitment. Organizations with leaders who invest in employee engagement, enabling technology, and consistently implementing a disciplined improvement methodology have the best chance of facilitating the cultural change toward a continuous improvement mindset.

Therefore, it’s necessary to instill a strong leadership mindset across the organization early in the process. Aligning the CI strategy with leadership becomes even more urgent when innovation drives change in your organization.

Key success factors for this strategy:
Infuse the fundamental standards of operational excellence and ‘‘how we’re going to transform the way we do work’’ into the leadership team from the outset – newly recruited leaders must understand these principles, believe in them, and understand how to lead using them
Senior leaders play a critical role to enable successful transformation and drive culture change
Define the transformation process in terms of how operations will drive business improvement, together with a distinct improvement strategy and a clearly articulated vision of what winning looks like

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 CI strategy off course.


  1. Embed implementation design

A well-designed continuous improvement plan has helped many organizations achieve success in the face of market uncertainty, changing consumer demands, increased competition and unprecedented global events such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Implemented and managed effectively, continuous improvement helps integrate all functions, processes and practices across the value chain.

However, the fundamental change in how companies manage and execute work today is a major factor affecting the positive outcomes of continuous improvement in the long term.

This disruptive shift has created somewhat of a paradox – it adds more prominence to continuous improvement efforts while rendering some traditional approaches ineffective. For example, an implementation based purely on lean principles – without linking to business goals – will fail to fulfil its promise as a transformation tool.

Consequently, organizations need to adapt how they embed continuous improvement within their organizational cultures. A key focus during implementation is to entrench best practices as quickly as possible. This embeds CI in the organization, shielding the world-class ethos from an external disruption such as a pandemic or internal upheavals such as personnel changes.

Key success factors for this strategy:
Develop a coordinated approach to cross-organizational execution and benefits tracking focused on a consistent set of shared priorities – engagement across broader operations and functions are critical to link improvements end-to-end
Take a balanced approach that creates early wins in the short term and builds capabilities for the longer term
Meet the quarterly targets but obtain buy-in for the longer-term process and systems improvement to ensure sustainable continuous improvement
Create best practice assets (model lines) and customer segments on pilot sites that people can visit, see and touch – and retain its cutting-edge character to reach higher stages of maturity
Be clear about the end state and introduce maturity models that allow the organization to evolve toward this state


  1. Clarify organization roles and responsibility

A continuous improvement culture refers to the system of values shared by an organization that promotes the belief that whatever is good today might not be good enough from a sustainable perspective. Broadly speaking, it’s a shift in the way employees think about their work – a mindset that motivates people to become better every day through incremental changes that improve overall productivity.

While a CI culture is led from the top down, it is implemented from the bottom up. Only when management puts responsibility in the hands of frontline workers can they take ownership and become accountable.

However, it’s rarely the case that we can change how people think or what they believe. Therefore, building an improvement culture is the responsibility of site-based leadership that needs to carry it out internally. To enable this, the executive leadership needs to provide a clear end-state vision and a codified road map of objectives so that line managers across the organization can curate their CI culture consistently.

True improvement needs to become ‘‘the way we work’’ as part of daily management routines. Only line managers can build this, not external or even internal corporate experts. A CI culture is one of the critical ingredients for a healthy organization.

Key success factors for this strategy:
Review and minimize the number of work projects coming from central manufacturing teams
Plant managers need to have the control to call on central team support for projects they drive within the context of the improvement strategy and the defined principles
The improvement journey must be visible to everyone – each function across the value chain needs to understand its evolving role as the new work system gets established
Streamline functions and eliminate redundant roles in the central manufacturing team to eliminate excess coordination and rework
Reset plant leader roles to increase the amount of time plant managers and frontline supervisors spend on the line coaching, and measure the time

Continuous improvement is more important than ever

Given the rapid changes in the modern workplace, continuous improvement is more vital today than it’s ever been. It’s a highly effective mindset, culture and toolkit for navigating, focusing and iteratively improving amidst the rapid changes organizations face at many levels.

CI has also proven itself as a highly effective booster of employee engagement while also reducing turnover rates. With so many organizations still reeling from the “Great Resignation” fallout in 2021, continuous improvement could be the ideal antidote for this corporate ailment.

By focusing on sustainable continuous improvement activities, companies can successfully weave continuous improvement into their DNA.

Download the how-to guide Managing change across the organization and learn how to successfully lead your people though the change process.


How-to guide: Managing change across the organisation