The 3 Basic Ideas For Creating A Continuous Improvement Culture

Every company dreams of Operational Excellence, as it helps cutting costs, boosting efficiency, and improving employees' morale, before impacting the bottom line. This is true, but it is also true that continuous improvement is a culture to be built. I am not even talking about Lean management or even Six Sigma projects, but rather how to set your team on the right foot to get started with improving your operations or Supply Chain.

Below are a few basic tips and recommendations to get you started with that journey.

Set up standards you can improve

One of the first things you would need to have in your organization is a set of standards.

If you don't have standards yet, go ahead and set them up. When I speak about standards, I refer to your processes, Standard Operating Procedures, templates, common files, or systems... but all of that should be documented and available to everyone, with everyone trained on them, and a clear process to document changes when they occur.

Implementing a set of tools and methodologies on data management and reporting is also quite critical. This will support your understanding of the performance of your processes and guide you through the improvement phase. But here again, a clear standard needs to be set up, so you have reliable data that is reported to management on daily basis.

Without that first step, it is difficult to improve. How can we do a Kaizen event without having a clear view of the process current standard? Indeed, if everyone is not on the same page, there is not a benchmark for understanding what symptoms your problems create, there can be no improvement program or problem-solving. Or at least not in the right direction.
Many organizations lack these standards. Team members are used to doing as they have always done and management does not have a deep enough understanding of the underlying issues affecting their business, partly due to lack of reliable data, lack of visibility on process performance... They have never taken the time to set the standards, or never thought it would be useful, but it clearly stalls the growth of their operational capabilities, and therefore the company's growth. By creating a set of standards, businesses will create transparency in their business operations for their staff, and already limit some of the recurring issues they face.

Creating habits in the workplace

It is always good to create habits in your organizations. For that part, I let you refer to some of the best books such as "Atomic Habits" by James Clear or "The Power of Habit" by Charles Duhigg, among others. And continuous improvement is a habit. Well, it is continuous, so it has to become a habit, and across the entire organization if we want sustainable results.

That said, how can we create habits. We need to repeat, again and again.

Start by introducing and teaching some very handy and simple tools, like 5S, Daily huddle, or Kanban boards (check our videos here). I would recommend that you use them on daily basis, make a recurring shared agenda meeting with your team to make sure everyone is reminded. Make sure there is instant gratification to the use of the tool, but also accompany that with regular reporting of the progress. Making daily small incremental improvement will develop employees' improvement muscles, and make it spread across the entire organization, and make it part of their daily life.

The key is to make it simple, frequent enough so it becomes part of your processes, for long enough for it to become a routine, to use regular reporting, to empower employees so they make it their own, and finally to celebrate each improvement. And obviously, as discussed above, make it a documented standard so everyone knows about it and apply it.

A clear Leadership engagement

Although the above two points are important steps towards Operational excellence, this one is certainly the most important for a continuous improvement culture to stick and to last. Management should not only be involved and engaged but should definitely show the path on the front line.

Many executives will tend to delegate to a Continuous Improvement Manager or Lean Expert and read a monthly report if they have time. But the role of a leader is to show the way and lead through it, and so it is for continuous improvement.

First, there should be involvement from the top of the company, on regular basis to show not only interest but also understanding of what is being done and how. Ideally, they should set the example, be humble enough to come down to the "Gemba" and clean the place themselves if need be. Executives should be masters of the tools employees should create a habit of using, and have an ear for employees' suggestions on how to improve their daily work and more. They should even encourage them to test their suggestions to learn from them, even participate in Kaizen events to master process improvement.

The Management team should provide their teams with a clear vision and directions for the company across the board. That vision will be the foundation of the improvements employees will create, as improvements ideas need to be formed in the direction the organization goes. For example, consider that improvements in costs may not always be in line with the company's goals, which are geared towards quality. Or if we rephrase, quality is the priority and where the focus should be.

Finally, Leadership should make sure there is accountability for the improvement efforts. First, top management should be requesting for clear and standardized data management and measurement of performance with a focus on the company's goals. Then, reporting will bring the necessary accountability, where regular reports on data, misalignments with the goal of the company, and countermeasures for performance improvement should be clearly requested and emphasized on.

All that will support the cultural objective to improve constantly and consistently.

You should understand that this is only the basic elements in creating an operational excellence culture change in your organization, and many others should come in to help embed it completely, before going into your Lean culture journey if you wish to.

Building these elements into your company culture will also create the necessary rigor which will create the basis of using the tools and make any change as seamless as possible and your improvement projects real success stories.

If you have questions about continuous improvement or need any consulting services on that, please contact us.

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