No matter how successful an organization is, it can’t afford to stand still. Instead, it must foster a culture of continuous improvement or risk slipping behind its competitors. Some improvements may be large and attention grabbing, but the majority will be small. The most important thing, however, is that they’re frequent, propelling the business forward.
The continuous improvement process must encompass all elements of an organization from its personnel right through to products, services and the tools used to achieve its goals. While good leadership can help to put changes in place, these measures must be sustainable, promoting a culture that crosses boundaries to be adopted at all levels of the business.
Why continuous improvement is vital
Continuous improvement is just one aspect of a healthy organizational culture, but it’s an important one. In research conducted by McKinsey for its Organizational Health Index, it was identified that continuous improvement was the most common culture model in high-performing businesses. These companies were found to be at least twice as likely to outperform their competitors than those that ranked lower on the organizational health scale.
Here are some of the main benefits of adopting the continuous improvement approach:
- Implementing a symbiotic relationship with operational excellence
- Prioritizing and managing new ideas to drive innovation
- Driving employee engagement and retention
- Empowering staff to give the business a competitive advantage
The role of continuous development leadership
While continuous development culture starts at the top of an organization, it’s important its implementation is rolled out from the bottom. Frontline workers given the responsibility to take ownership of outcomes can have a large impact on the bottom line, improving day-to-day processes and showing greater motivation to move projects forward.
The problem can be that when a leader dedicated to the idea of continuous development leaves an organization, the culture can start to fall apart. This was seen at Wisconsin-based ThedaCare in 2008, when John Toussaint left. He had implemented the Toyota Production System (TPS), which aims to eliminate all waste and promote the most efficient processes within a business.
The implementation of TPS had been successful, and the care organization had shown impressive gains in performance on the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ metrics. After Toussaint’s departure, ThedaCare dropped from being the best in the US down to around the middle due to a lack of succession planning and failure to instill behaviors in managers at all levels.
5 steps to achieving a continuous improvement culture
The minutiae of implementing a culture of continuous development inside organizations will vary depending on business models, workflows and culture that already exists. There are, however, a number of steps that can be taken by all companies to put a strategy in place that will provide the building blocks for a new way of working.
1. Look ahead to the next five, ten and 50 years
Continuous improvement is all about looking ahead to an optimistic view of the future. To do this, you need to establish a realistic benchmark of where you are in the present and set goals for five, ten and 50 years’ time. These aims will help you set key performance indicators and shape the behaviors you want to promote in your employees to underpin the new culture.
2. Get buy-in from stakeholders
In order for a continuous improvement culture to take hold, all members of an organization must work together to achieve common goals. The success of this lies in clear communication and commitments from stakeholders at all levels. Put your aims in writing, distribute them widely and invite feedback to ensure your strategy is as watertight as possible.
3. Develop a framework
Selecting a framework for improvement is a key step as it will set out the procedures to work towards the aforementioned goals. There are a number to choose from, with some of the most well known including:
- Six Sigma, which utilizes in-house coaches and champions to take responsibility for continuous improvement
- Kaizen, meaning improvement in Japanese, looks to introduce efficiencies in the flow of information and products, as well as small changes in processes
- Perpetual beta is based on the idea that a product or service is never completed and can always be bettered through constructive feedback.
4. Roll out the tools to employees
Empower your employees with the continuous improvement tools, training and time to implement them. Encourage them to look for opportunities to do things better all the time and ask them to document any improvements that have been made. This enables you to start the process of creating standards to work to and prevent any gains from being lost. Such foundations will help to improve the company culture and put new habits in place for continuous improvement.
5. Celebrate your achievements
To tap into the symbiotic relationship with operational excellence, you must provide ongoing recognition of the results achieved by continuous improvement. Formal and informal acknowledgments build engagement with employees and motivate not just individuals but others in the organization to improve their processes too, which helps to drive a shift in the company culture.