3 Signs Your CI Model Is at Risk, and What to Do About It



Just like anything shiny and new, implementing continuous improvement has a mystique and attraction when it first hits prime time. However, after a while the newness wears off and the CI process must stand on its own merits. At times, frankly, it doesn’t.

As a leader or manager, you may be too close to the day-to-day process or too busy with actually trying to hit the bottom line targets in your business to see problems developing. These are a few things to watch for.

Flavor Of The Month

If you are a continuous improvement practitioner, how many process improvement tools and problem-solving methods do you have in your tool belt? Ten? Thirty? Fifty?  To many non-practitioners, continuous improvement may seem like a foreign language—and in some cases it is, when you use Japanese terms, such as gemba, heijunka, kaizen, and poka yoke.

As a practitioner, you might know that it makes sense to use process control charts to identify and reduce variability, 5s to see and eliminate waste, and process mapping identify and eliminate process bottlenecks. But to the average Joe and Joan on the shop floor, it may look like you’re flitting about from method to method indiscriminately. No sooner have J and J learned about one new tool for “improving” things than they are told to forget that and learn something else, or so it appears from their perspective. This bouncing around makes different continuous improvement activities the flavor of the month.

When workers—at any level—think they’re seeing this flavor-of-the-month phenomenon, it becomes difficult for them to develop or maintain enthusiasm. Why invest time and energy in something that will go away in the next few weeks?

You can do several things to establish or correct your model to avoid this situation:

  • Communicate an overall strategy of continuous improvement rather than a short-term, tool-driven, project-focused approach.
  • Provide just-in-time training in quality methods using practical applications. Kaizen workshops are particularly good for this, with tools trained and used to meet the specific improvement needs as opposed to across-the-board training in tools that may not be used for months, if ever.
  • Show how different approaches synergize rather than conflict. Teach not just the what, but the why in selecting the right tools to address specific issues using a systematic problem-solving process.

Be alert for signs of disillusionment, dissatisfaction, or confusion and develop a plan to focus your continuous improvement strategy. Communicate frequently and consistently.


Lip Service From Top Management and Supervisors

In order to execute continuous improvement effectively, the organization’s culture must embrace change and commit hearts and minds to the strategy and tactics. The desired actions for leaders are “walking the walk and talking the talk.” At times you may find more talk than walk, in other words, nominal agreement without supportive actions. Leaders may just be too busy, stretched too thin on their “real” work to put any effort into the quality function. They may also feel that continuous improvement “is someone else’s job,” specifically the responsibility of the quality or operational excellence team.

Ideally, there is alignment of communications and actions in support of continuous improvement efforts from the top to the bottom of the organization. One way to achieve this is to ensure that metrics, reinforcement, and compensation are aligned up and down the organization to support the continuous improvement efforts as part of the organization’s strategy.

Some ways to address this:

  • Utilize a push/pull strategic goal-setting process (e.g. Hoshin-Kanri) that includes the quality function and continuous improvement efforts.
  • Assign accountability and metrics for continuous improvement efforts to operational leaders as well as operational excellence facilitators. This may be a balanced scorecard approach.
  • Engage managers and supervisors as trainers and facilitators of parts of the continuous improvement efforts, with coaching and support from CI experts.
  • Implement a leader standard work expectation that is tied to performance review and requires engagement by all managers in some part of the CI efforts.

Remember that what gets measured gets done. If you want leaders and managers to be proactive in driving the continuous improvement model, build it into their metrics. One of the key tenets of continuous improvement is teamwork. This is particularly important at the cross-functional leadership team level. Finger-pointing and dysfunctional silo optimization are enemies of successful CI execution.


Lack of Return

Why do teams do continuous improvement? Ultimately, for most organizations we expect our efforts to improve the bottom line. Improvements in safety, quality, and efficiency not only protect our employees, better serve our customers, and make our jobs easier, but also drive reduced costs or increased revenues.

So if we don’t see a return on investment for the monies spent on training, consulting, operational changes, and other continuous improvement efforts, management unrest starts to develop. This is understandable; if the organization’s strategy forecasts benefits from continuous improvement and CI doesn’t deliver, leaders are held accountable and must find other ways to meet commitments. This might force cutting costs in other ways, laying off staff, or dropping unprofitable business lines. It may also lead to negative consequences for leaders: lowered compensation, demotion, undelivered bonuses, loss of prestige.

When we see a miss on a projected CI return, it might mean that we’re doing something wrong, that other changes have occurred (and we’d be much worse off than if we didn’t do the CI efforts), or that we didn’t properly project the impact of the CI program.

The biggest way to counter these issues is to be realistic. Those in the quality and continuous improvement function in an organization are often the ones closest to data, its collection, understanding, analysis, and manipulation. Use data wisely:

  • Measure the right process variables and outputs to provide leading indicators of financial outcomes. 
  • Predict accurately over time. Many continuous improvement efforts will have initial negative results, at least according to existing metrics, until the system works through a backlog of issues and breaks even on any new investments made. Be sure to project this upfront, not hide it or hope for the best.
  • Monitor the process and results closely to see if tweaks are needed or if major issues must be addressed. It is far better to find out early that changes are required than to be reactive after very bad results are reported.

These three signs are leading indicators that your continuous improvement model could be at risk. The key to preventing these and other major problems is to stay close enough to daily operations and pay attention to the voices of the people and processes to head off these issues before they become insurmountable.


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About the author

Nancy Bach

Nancy Bach has spent more than 20 years in the industry as a quality and operational excellence practitioner and manager. In private consulting, she creates and delivers a Lean Certification course, provides Green Belt training and works with multi-functional organizations to develop strategy and implement process improvement.