A culture of continuous improvement is built upon three critical elements: engaged leadership, a consistent improvement methodology, and enabling technology.
Every single organization that has come to us struggling with establishing or maintaining an improvement culture is failing, for one reason or another, to nurture at least one of these three components. Leadership, methodology, and technology support each each other in an intricate, codependent dance that has been mastered by the best continuous improvement organizations.
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.
One of our customers, experienced the difference that engaged leadership makes first hand. When her organization was first attempting to develop a Lean culture, employees “felt like we had the drive, and the passion, but we had it from a grassroots level; we didn’t have the support from above. If we didn’t have that from above - if [the VP] didn’t think it was important - we weren’t going to be able to drive it.” And they weren’t able to drive it, until a new VP came along who devoted his time and energy into promoting a culture of continuous improvement. Under his leadership, the company achieved over $7 million of financial impact through continuous improvement in 2014. You can read more about this organization's Lean journey here.
Lead by example; participate in continuous improvement openly and with gusto
Talk about the importance of continuous improvement with everybody, every chance you get
Consistently ask for ideas for improvement and respond quickly to those ideas
Empower employees to make daily continuous improvement a part of their own work
Don’t only ask for ideas that directly affect the bottom line or meet a certain ROI threshold
Emphasize the importance of small, incremental improvement - don’t make every improvement be an event or a project
Help share and spread ideas
Compile and celebrate the impact achieved through continuous improvement
There are a huge number of improvement disciplines that your organization may subscribe to, including Lean, Kaizen, Six Sigma, and Hoshin Kanri, to name a few. If you’ve found a method that works well for your organization, use it (or use more than one)! In terms of developing a culture of continuous improvement, it really doesn’t matter which improvement discipline you’re utilizing. Rather, it matters that your methodology for implementing it is simple, consistent, and disciplined.
One problem a lot of organizations face when trying to create a culture of continuous improvement is that they over engineer everything. What does that look like? You might be making your improvement methodology too complicated if:
You require such precise (or large) impact calculations that no one ever reports an impact on any improvement ideas
Every person in your organization needs a lot of formal training before getting engaged in continuous improvement
You have 22 spreadsheets that you email back and forth with progress updates
You need a meeting to approve ideas before people can start making improvements. Double whammy if that meeting has to be scheduled far into the future
Process changes are only implemented if they shoot for “perfect,” rather than simply “better”
Organizations that succeed in spreading a culture of continuous improvement do so because their methodology is simple. Employees know enough about the chosen continuous improvement discipline to find opportunities for improvement, but they aren’t developed into experts in some methodology before they’re allowed to participate. People have an easy way to submit opportunities for improvement, and they’re empowered to make small improvements on their own. They have a way to calculate their impact accurately enough that the data is useful, but not so precise that it deters such reporting altogether.
Essentially, you want to make your improvement methodology simple enough that everyone can participate with a low barrier to engagement.
In order for your improvement methodology to be effective, you must implement it consistently throughout your organization. Managers should all get the same training regarding employee engagement, and the same strategies should be adapted for each area of the organization. This is especially important for aggregating the impact of continuous improvement from across the organization. If one group collects their impact in a complicated Excel file while another keeps a running tally on a bulletin board, leadership has no way to figure out the cumulative or comparable impact of that work.
A successful culture of continuous improvement has a structured, consistent way to:
Track the progress of each improvement idea
Report on the individual and cumulative impact of improvements
Store improvement knowledge for future reference
A disciplined methodology is key to spreading a culture of continuous improvement. In a disciplined culture of continuous improvement:
Everyone is encouraged to participate in continuous improvement
There is visibility into all levels of the organization, ensuring widespread engagement
Employees implement their improvement ideas without delay
Deadlines are kept and overdue items are promptly addressed
An impact is calculated for each and every improvement
The status of improvements is communicated clearly and efficiently
Continuous improvement doesn’t play second fiddle in organizations that have mastered the cultural transformation. 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.
Technology is the piece of the equation that is most often missing from organizations struggling with the development of improvement cultures. Widespread continuous improvement is difficult to manage and monitor with traditional technologies such as suggestion boxes, spreadsheets, and idea boards. Continuous improvement software fills that gap, connecting diverse, dispersed employees with features that enable collaboration and communication, enhance visibility, increase productivity, and enable consistent impact reporting.
Here are the features continuous improvement software should provide:
Active notifications promote effective leadership behaviors and methodologies by:
- Streamlining communication
- Providing a single source for improvement updates
- Reducing the amount of time spent in meetings
- Ensuring quick followup to questions and action items logged in the software
- Sending automated reminders of upcoming due dates and overdue work to
Engagement and Impact Reports
Continuous improvement software provides continuous improvement impact reports that make it easy for you to see
- The overall health of your improvement program
- The engagement levels of individuals, work areas, and the organization as a whole
- The impact (both financial and non-financial) of continuous improvement
Continuous improvement software lets you recognize employees with features such as virtual badge systems and online profiles that publicly identify each individual’s success. Software can also provide you with the information you need to take recognition one step further by identifying high-performers and recognizing them in more formal, real-life celebrations such as quarterly employee recognition ceremonies.
Continuous improvement software automatically broadcasts the results of and details about your implemented ideas. This feature encourages more people to get involved in continuous improvement, recognizes those who are making improvements, disseminates best practices throughout the organization, and ensures that each improvement has the maximum impact.
Capture Tribal Knowledge
Continuous improvement software gives your organization a long-term memory. The software creates an improvement knowledge repository that is accessible to anyone in the organization, and is searchable so that all future staff and leaders may benefit from that institutional knowledge. It serves as a single source of truth for all improvement work that everyone in the organization refers to with improvement questions and ideas.
Easy to Deploy
In line with keeping your methodology simple, you should select easily deployed continuous improvement software. You don’t want to start using something that will be too complicated for your average user, or require that each employee undergo massive amounts of training to get up and running on it.
Learn more about continuous improvement software in this free eBook: