How to Make Your Continuous Improvement Program Sustainable


Do you remember Aesop’s story of the tortoise and the hare? The tortoise plods along slowly and steadily while the hare has an exciting start, racing off toward the finish line. Then the hare stops to rest, burns out, or hits some kind of obstacle. Meanwhile the slow and steady tortoise keeps chugging along and wins.

Continuous improvement is a bit like the tortoise: slow and methodical, unceasing, sometimes boring, yet victorious in the end. Because of its somewhat boring appearance, CI doesn’t have the excitement of a shiny new piece of equipment (the hare).  Making continuous improvement somewhat exciting and important in the minds of the workforce is one element of creating sustainability for the program. It is part of building a continuous improvement culture. Let’s look at several elements of CI culture creation that must happen.


Align Continuous Improvement Efforts With Strategy

Continuous improvement should never be put in place simply because “everyone else is doing it.” When creating an organization’s strategy, hopefully with a push-pull process such as Hoshin Kanri, top managers and department leaders wrestle with “what do we need to do?” and “how are we going to do that?” In the course of that iterative discussion, continuous improvement projects are identified and a continuous improvement strategy is developed in alignment with the overall organization strategy.


Ensure The Plan Is Clear And Metrics Are Aligned

Communications are vital to effectiveness and sustainability of any organizational effort, and especially continuous improvement. Because improvement efforts are somewhat separate from day-to-day operational tasks, it’s important to tie them intimately to strategic vision and operational goals. A proactive communication plan that is conveyed consistently from both continuous improvement leaders and operational leaders is essential.

What gets measured gets done. If your performance metrics are not aligned with strategy and with specific continuous improvement goals, your CI efforts won’t get the attention needed to achieve results. To counter this, create a balanced scorecard with high-level organizational objectives stated as key performance indicators and drilldown metrics aligned to strategy, with CI measures as part of departmental goals and accountabilities.  


Build Leadership Commitment And Engagement

If the CEO or business manager says the organization will adopt a continuous improvement strategy, leaders within the organization will agree, effectively saying: “We’re with you, boss.” However, pledging support isn’t adequate to demonstrate true commitment. Operational leaders tend to devote their 110% of effort to meeting their business objectives. Their compensation, including bonuses, is tied to these organizational goals. Create true motivation and commitment among these leaders to continuous improvement efforts by building CI expectations into their operational goals and compensation objectives.

For example, a department leader might be required to have two kaizen workshops, implement process control in a specific area, support training for a department green belt, or teach a module of the organization’s black belt training. All of these are in alignment with the department’s other quantified deliverables in safety, quality, productivity, and costs. True continuous improvement actions are far better indicators of commitment than lip service.


Manage Change

Leaders and practitioners have generally had extended and repeated exposure to continuous improvement goals, language, features, and methodologies before they make the decision to launch continuous improvement as part of the organization’s strategy and operations. Meanwhile, other members of the workforce are hearing something new and different and being asked, or told, to change the way they do things. They’re moving out of their comfort zone. It may be fairly easy to try something new, but it’s also fairly easy to fall back to that comfort zone.

Training and resources for managing change can help get people beyond the resistance seen in early stages of change to actually embracing the change. With appropriate training, communications, and reinforcement, the culture can shift so much that workers thrive in an environment built on regular change.


Provide Just-In-Time Applied Training

For training efficiency, you might want to train people across the board in any new technique that will be introduced within the organization for continuous improvement efforts. However, if most people won’t be applying this new knowledge on the job within days, weeks, or months, retention will decline rapidly. When the time comes for application, they may need retraining or, worse, may be put into a situation where they are expected to use skills they’ve forgotten.

Ideally, training will be provided in a just-in-time fashion when the trainees will immediately be using what they’ve learned. Building an application project into the training makes it even more effective. A kaizen event is a great example of this, with participants following a learn-and-go-do cycle throughout a multi-day onsite workshop.

Give trained and experienced workers opportunities to lead others in using these skills. Project leaders don’t have to come from engineering or operational excellence staffs. Operators and team leaders at a shopfloor level are often able to use the combination of process knowledge and CI training to lead their colleagues and reinforce their own skills. When you create the overall CI training plan, include support for building personal skills in self-facilitation, communications, and project management for designated shopfloor leaders.


Build In Reinforcement…and Fun!

Continuous improvement is work. At the same time, it’s a team effort. Think of sports teams that engage in physical challenges and at the same time have reinforcement and fun.  Every sports team uses scoring to indicate progress and wins. Likewise, the continuous improvement team can use its metrics to show progress, indicate a need for more practice and effort, and celebrate wins.

CI teams have numerous opportunities for reinforcement and celebration. Performance graphs are made visible throughout the workplace. Seeing performance indicators progressing as desired is intrinsically reinforcing. In addition, organizational leaders pay attention to progress, providing spoken and written reinforcement and interaction.

Finally, CI teams celebrate. It’s important to do this frequently after numerous short-term gains, not just when longer-term major wins occur. Reinforcement and celebrations range from coffee and cake or pizza parties to financial profit-sharing plans.


One Last Word…

Sustainability is simultaneously weak and strong, just like a knight protected by a suit of armor. When all the features above are built into the culture, your continuous improvement system remains strong and self-sustaining. However, when one chink develops in the armor, a weak spot offers the opportunity to let in elements to destroy the system from the inside.

More often than not, the potential for failure exists at the top. If senior management expresses a lack of support for the continuous improvement efforts, a domino effect can quickly spread through the organization. Mid-managers and supervisors begin to lose interest and focus on the things that top management wants done. The overall workforce may continue “doing CI” for a while until their other job requirements make it impossible for them to keep going.

Find out more about how to start, enhance, and sustain your continuous improvement efforts with help from EON.  


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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.