While almost every business puts some amount of effort into Continuous Improvement (CI), making ongoing and meaningful improvements to a business or to work processes is not easy.
We have also noticed that regardless of the specific methods used for making improvements, almost all of these initiatives aimed at gaining greater efficiency, quality, speed, and/or customer delight have two important things in common:
- They generally produce some improvements, and
- Then they peter out
So, as it turns out, these well-intended CI plans are, in fact, “discontinuous,” and the hardest part of Continuous Improvement is making it “continuous!”
Based on our research and experience, there are some common reasons why CI efforts tend toward becoming discontinuous.
The most common pitfall that leads to ineffective CI efforts is unclear or delegated leadership. Continuous improvement must be fully embraced by every line manager. Delegating the effort to a Quality Manager, HR leader, strategic planning manager, or other staff person, is very likely to lead the effort to fizzle.
John Kotter, a recognized pioneer in the field of leading change, uses the term ‘guiding coalition’ to describe a powerful and strategic group that works together to bring about the desired changes within an organization. The team must be committed to the achievement of a continuously improving culture. It should include a majority of the most powerful people in the organization and may also include some people who may not be a part of senior management.
The next culprit is insufficient communication. Leadership must continue to communicate at every possible opportunity and every possible way why continuous improvement must become part of the organization’s DNA.
The vision must be clear and simple, and throughout the organization, people in leadership positions should constantly communicate the importance of continuous improvement and the progress to date. Successes must be widely shared, learnings must be plowed back into the organization to accelerate results, and new opportunities to become better at improving should be identified and clearly communicated. New employees must hear the why, the how, the
history, and the vision of what’s next.
Finally, neglecting alignment is a sure way to undermine a comprehensive CI effort. Every one of us has our own personal goals and objectives in addition to the goals and objectives of our organization as a whole and our job in particular. When these get out of alignment, progress will stop.
For example, a natural and intended outcome of most process improvement is the ability to do more with less — often with less people-time. Instantly, we have a conflict between the organization’s goals for cost saving and people’s need for income retention. And processes cannot be effectively improved or improvements effectively sustained without the support of the people doing the work. Not coincidentally, the company with the longest history of a continuously improving culture, Toyota Motors, promises employees a very high level of job security.
The leadership must think several moves ahead to both maintain alignment and to capture financial gains from productivity improvements. The choice of where to focus improvement efforts is probably the most critical.
Among the best areas on which to focus are:
- Aim improvement methods to address the constraint to sales.
- Improve productivity in the parts of the organization with too much work, in order to eliminate the need to hire.
- Improve productivity in an area where people have the skills that, if freed up, could be transferred to departments with too much work or that have had attrition.
- Improve non-people costs, such as energy, scrap, paper waste (‘if you want to find the waste, find the paper’), and work with suppliers to identify ways to reduce costs.