8 ways to build a culture of continuous improvement – and make it stick

Building an effective culture of continuous improvement (CI) is not just about executing a cluster of improvement projects. While it’s a good place to start to reap tangible rewards, more is required to drive sustainable results over time and embed continuous improvement in your organization’s DNA.


Most organizations have the knowledge of the various CI tools and principles right, but haven’t invested in the leadership commitment and framework required to establish a formal, systemic and sustainable management process of improvement. This missing organizational DNA is the glue that holds this great foundation of knowledge in place, and enables people to continuously improve how they improve through a structured and integrated approach.

Toyota’s organizational DNA and culture was created by Japanese ingenuity over a 70-year period and is still going strong. The iconic car manufacturer follows a systemic approach to ensuring its philosophy of improvement is instilled in every member of the organization. That’s why the Toyota Production System has become the holy grail of continuous improvement.

Western organizations should continue to learn from its success, but they must create their own business needs, driven and culturally powered by a systemic process of improvement. Simply asking employees to use a few new tools, templates and methodologies, and expecting them to instantly act like Toyota equals cultural rejection.

You can’t copy and paste culture. Rather, you must nurture and develop the right enabling patterns of behavior and cultural attributes of excellence. It is even more important to determine how the behaviors will be measured and institutionalized, so you need to define a meaningful set of indicators and build these into your performance management system.

Engaged leadership is arguably the most important determinant of success when it comes to creating a culture of continuous improvement. Organizations with leaders who invest in employee engagement and enabling technology, and also consistently implement a regimented improvement methodology, succeed in continuous improvement.

As a start, here are eight things you as a leader can do to promote a culture of continuous improvement in your organization:

  1. Lead by example; participate in continuous improvement openly and with gusto.
  2. Talk about the importance of continuous improvement with everybody, at every opportunity.
  3. Consistently ask for ideas for improvement and respond quickly to those ideas.
  4. Empower employees to make daily continuous improvement a part of their own work.
  5. Don’t only ask for ideas that directly affect the bottom line or meet a certain ROI threshold.
  6. Emphasize the importance of small, incremental improvements ‒ don’t make every improvement an event or a project.
  7. Help share and spread ideas.
  8. Document and celebrate the results achieved through continuous improvement.

Organizations that succeed in spreading a culture of continuous improvement do so because their methodology is simple. Make your improvement methodology simple enough so that everyone can participate and be engaged. Employees should know enough about the chosen method to find opportunities for improvement, but they won’t become experts until they’re allowed to participate.

Continuous improvement doesn’t play second fiddle in organizations that have mastered the cultural transformation. Why? Because every employee and leader knows that improvement is a key aspect of their job, and they approach it with the same weight and discipline as they would any other key performance indicator.

DOWNLOAD How to Guide: Keeping your teams engaged on the CI journey for tips and techniques to keep your people engaged when CI maturity levels out.