Four Requirements for a Sustainable Continuous Improvement Model



It seems that an ever-present concern among Operational and CI Leaders is that the hard work taking place in the organization to implement a continuous improvement model will ultimately go to waste due to a lack of sustainability.  I’ve worked with numerous organizations over the years that were in the midst of deploying a CI model for the 2nd, 3rd, 4th or <insert number here> time hoping that this time the effort really sticks.  So what does it take to “get over the hump” so that the organization isn’t forced to undertake a CI relaunch down the road?

In our experience there are 4 fundamental requirements that need to be met to ensure the sustainability of your CI program across time:

Requirement 1: Build Understanding with a Prescriptive Content Framework

One of the habits that Stephen Covey espouses in his book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, states “seek first to understand, then to be understood.”  Of course, Covey is referring to behaviors that contribute to personal effectiveness, but I’d like to commandeer and adapt his comment for our purposes by stating that a critical requirement for a successful and sustainable CI implementation is to seek first to build understanding, then to drive action.  When I refer to “understanding” in this context, it’s from two perspectives:

  1. The concepts and tools to be applied - I’ve made this point in a previous article but I’ll restate it here briefly: employee empowerment lies at the intersection of capability and accountability.  Employees can’t own CI if the organization has not invested in making them sufficiently capable to do so.

  2. The practical considerations  - In my opinion, where many organizations fail is that they don’t put their continuous improvement approach into any sort of meaningful context.  Companies talk about “doing Lean” or “being a Six Sigma organization” as if these methodologies are well understood by all  and serve as an end to themselves.  At no point do they describe CI in a way that’s practical and meaningful to the people they are trying to engage.  Employees in the plant want to understand what is required of them and how it will either boost performance, solve a problem, or improve working conditions in the operation.  They also want to know how all of this fits into what they’re already doing to improve and how it might impact their roles in the plant

A great strategy for addressing the practical considerations is to develop a documented content model that breaks the CI implementation into manageable stages and steps and explains those stages and steps in a meaningful way.  It’s not about “doing 5S” but organizing the work environment so that we can free up space in the staging area and get your sanitation tools located closer to the equipment.  It’s not about “Gemba walks” but getting out of the offices and into the operation so you can have meaningful interactions with the shop floor work teams and make smarter decisions about how to operate the plant.  It’s not about the “5 Whys” but about solving problems the right way so you don’t jump to conclusions and solve the wrong problem.


Requirement 2: Engage the Organization with a Structured Deployment Approach

Quick question...what’s the primary objective behind an early stage CI deployment?  I believe that many would say it’s to show results quickly believing that quick results both help to justify the investment and build momentum.  And while I don’t necessarily disagree that quick results can propel the CI implementation forward, I do take issue with the idea that quick results are the primary objective.

In fact, the primary objective for the initial deployment, particularly if sustainability is a focus area, should be employee engagement because sustainability is ultimately a function of engagement.  So what does that mean for the deployment approach?  I think a few things:

  1. Getting the managing process and governance model established is paramount (see requirements 3-4)

  2. Quick results are great, but not if they cause unnecessary disruption and angst among employees.  In some situations, simply having clear line of sight into the short-term business benefit with a well-defined and realistic plan to capture it may be sufficient

  3. Establishing a “guiding coalition” at the site is a must.  Site leaders must feel like they have some control over the direction that CI takes at their location or they will not engage in a meaningful way

  4. Early investments to build capability and coach the process are crucial.  Investments in capability building may create a longer runway to ROI than simply “getting something done,” but the risk of regression is significantly lower

  5. The first series of improvements must be a shared effort between the line organization and the CI organization

Requirement 3: Drive Execution with a Well-Defined Managing Process

When I speak of a “managing process,” I’m referring to the set of activities that need to happen at the site to ensure that continuous improvement is given appropriate focus and attention.  The managing process is crucial to the success of the production system implementation.  Without it, the organization risks that the sites will not autonomously continue the journey long past the initial deployment.  Rituals and routines that need to be established as part of the overall site managing process include:

  • Strategy development and execution management

  • Improvement project identification, prioritization, and execution management

  • Functioning of improvement teams

  • Frequency and depth of performance opportunity assessment (i.e., a “gap to perfect” performance analysis)

  • Frequency of re-assessment against the practice maturity model and updating of the implementation plan generated from the re-assessment

  • Objective third party milestone assessments

Requirement  4: Hold People Accountable with a Sequential Governance Model

If the managing process refers to the activities to facilitate a production system journey at one site, then the governance model refers to the activities required to ensure that the journey is managed across the business.  The challenge that many companies face is that they’re standard governance model is solely focused on outcomes (i.e., operational performance measures) without an appropriate focus on the inputs to those outcomes.

The best governance model for a production system is not to create a whole series of new rituals and routines focused solely on continuous improvement but to embed CI into the standard governance model.  However, to do that well, the status of the production system journey needs to be articulated to business leadership in the right way.  Our experience is that business leaders need to be provided with a “leading indicators” scorecard that quickly and concisely provides a snapshot of the following:

  • Status of outstanding strategic objectives

  • Breadth, depth, and health of the improvement project pipeline

  • Operational maturity profile of the organization (i.e., what stage in the journey)

  • Value capture from CI

  • Volume and status of all improvement activity

This leading indicators scorecard makes it easy for business leaders to bring continuous improvement into their existing governance model, which is critical to the long-term sustainability of the production system.


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