How to Create a Culture of Continuous Improvement
Increasingly, the companies that continue to thrive across the globe are those who adopt a culture of continuous improvement.
A culture of continuous improvement seeks to promote that desire for development throughout the entire workforce, a key factor of which is improvement from the bottom up.
Where a company’s decision-making process is top-heavy and management-led, the resulting feeling of powerlessness generally felt by the workforce can result in a negative work culture that does not fulfill its productivity potential.
Seeking to improve a company through the combined effort and ideas of the entire workforce, regardless of their role or level of seniority, has come to be recognized as an effective way to create a sustainable business.
This acceptance of ideas from all employees, not just those in leadership roles, has been shown to improve employee engagement and generally create a positive work culture.
To discover more about work culture, read 4 Types of Corporate Culture.
Continuous improvement not only helps companies who adopt it into their culture but also the employees who work for them.
Here are the main reasons why continuous improvement is important:
Continuous improvement has been adopted by many successful and globally renowned organizations, such as Toyota, Nestlé and the Mayo Clinic, but there are still many companies that have not taken advantage of this approach.
Instead, they remain management-led in their decision-making.
Companies that adopt a continuous-improvement culture are likely to have a competitive edge over others in the same and neighboring industries as their entire workforce seeks to improve their products and services, not simply their management.
A metaphor that is often applied to employees in the workforce is that of cogs in a machine.
The suggestion is that while employees are part of a process, they are only suitable to play that one role and they will never come into contact with the ‘cogs’ at the top.
If they fail, they will be replaced by an identical cog. If they succeed, life will continue as it is, but they will not progress any further in the ‘machine’.
A culture of continuous improvement promotes a different approach where contact between different areas of the ‘machine’ is enabled and the knowledge and ideas of all employees are valued equally.
Employees are listened to as much as their managers and, moreover, equal value is placed on everyone’s input.
This opportunity to contribute to the success of the company, to be heard, and ultimately, to be valued for their expertise, has a positive effect on employees and therefore reduces employee turnover.
It also helps employers to discover talented individuals within the workforce who may be suitable for promotion and leadership roles.
A culture of continuous improvement includes the whole workforce in the development of services and products.
With eyes on the company’s services or products at all levels and an openness to receiving ideas on ways to improve them, the rate at which services or products can be developed increases.
From the work-floor operative who finds a more effective way to begin the production process by storing the base components closer together to the salesperson who points out a better way to track customer details, allowing improvement from the bottom up brings together the minds of everyone who works for the company.
Most people can think of a time when their work environment or process could have been improved. Many of those people will have felt that they had no power in solving that problem.
In a culture of continuous improvement, you are invited to not only make those problems evident but also to find a way to solve them.
This openness to ideas from the entire workforce allows a problem or an opportunity to improve to be examined from different viewpoints.
For instance, a manager seeks to improve productivity but is unaware of how each step in the manufacturing process can be improved to drive that productivity.
By speaking to the employees involved in each step, they find numerous ways to improve the process that they would never have been aware of without stepping outside their circle of knowledge.
In this section, we move from the theory of continuous improvement to examples of how it could be applied in real life.
Setting up a workshop to discuss a particular area of the business or a problem, where the attendees are key personnel but of varying levels of seniority, can be an excellent way to approach the issue from all angles.
Even where there is no perceived problem, addressing a specific process opens up the floor for employees to address their concerns.
A workshop is held on whether to centralize the IT function across a series of work sites. Would it be more efficient and cost-effective than the current setup, or is there a benefit to localized IT departments?
This workshop could involve employees from a wide range of functions such as IT itself, HR and finance. It could also involve employees from each of the work sites.
Looking at the issue from the point of view of all who are affected is likely to provide a more detailed picture than a discussion by managers only.
Sending out surveys and polls to all staff members provides another opportunity to gather information across the whole business. It also improves employee engagement as staff members feel their opinions are wanted and valued.
A survey is sent out asking employees to state ways that time could be saved in the workplace.
A gap analysis asks three questions relating to either the business as a whole or one specific area:
- Where are we now?
- Where do we want to be?
- How can we close the gap between the two?
A gap analysis is an ideal framework to bring together employees from different areas of the business at varying levels.
An increasing number of accidents occur in a factory. To reduce this number to an acceptable level, a gap analysis is carried out.
The manager of the factory is involved but employees from the work floor also take part, along with the health and safety officer, members of the HR function and the work-floor supervisor.
The approach a company takes to create a culture of continuous improvement will depend on many factors:
- The industry the company is involved in
- Whether it is product or service-based
- The existing company culture
- The size of the workforce and number of work sites
- Whether the business is centralized or spread across several work sites
Various strategies can be employed to create a continuous improvement culture:
'Kaizen' is a Japanese term that, at its most basic, means continuous improvement.
As a system for improvement, Kaizen is made up of four factors:
- Kaizen Teian is a process of bottom-up improvement that seeks to eliminate waste such as waiting time, excess processing or non-utilized talent
- Kaizen Events focuses on specific improvements over a short time period
- Kaikaku is a company-wide process of radical improvement
- Kakushin involves a major move to operate in a completely new way
This strategy involves the four steps in its name:
- Plan – Identify a change that needs to be made and set up a plan to do so
- Do – Make the change in a relatively small-scale way
- Check – Analyze the results of the change and decide whether it was effective
- Act – If the change was a success, apply it on a wider scale and continue to assess. If the change did not have the desired result, go back to step one
Lean improvement focuses on what the customer values most in the process used by the company and seeks to eliminate any waste elements, such as waiting times or defective products.
It has five principles:
Value – What are the customer’s needs from the product or service, such as cost or delivery time?
Value stream – What is the process to deliver the product or service to the customer; for instance, from the customer placing an order for a product, through its manufacture, to delivery. Once the value stream has been mapped out, wasteful elements (such as waiting time, defective parts) can be removed from the stream.
Flow – When the wasteful elements have been removed, does the value stream still work? If not, make the required changes. Check again.
Pull – Once the value stream has been improved, the resulting pull – that is, the amount of time it takes from customer order to customer delivery – should be improved and the need to hold excess inventory removed.
Perfection – This is the process of making lean improvement part of the company culture, involving all staff members in the process.
Created by engineer Bill Smith when he worked at Motorola in the 1980s, Six Sigma has five stages:
Determine the problem – Create problem and goal statements, a project charter, customer requirements, and a process map.
Assess the existing process – Collect data on performance and related problems. Verify the reliability of the data. Update the project charter.
Investigate the cause of any problems and continue to analyze the related data. Update the project charter.
Improve the process by implementing solutions – Continually assess for improvement and problems.
Refine the improved process – Through ongoing assessment, make further improvements to the process, and apply the findings to other areas of the business.
Top-quality management is a customer-focused approach that involves the entire workforce in the continuous improvement of the company.
Its main focus is on the standardization of processes, reliance on data and elimination of errors.
You can identify whether your employer is implementing a culture of continuous improvement by looking out for the following:
In a culture of continuous improvement, everyone should be involved in making changes to the workplace, to processes, and to product or service design.
The entire workforce should understand the importance of continuous improvement and the strategy, such as Kaizen or Six Sigma, that is used.
There should be an understanding that while managers may play an active role in continuous improvement and lead by example, valuable ideas for change will also come from the rest of the workforce.
Especially those working at the forefront of a particular process; for instance, the workers who check machine-constructed items for defects.
In a culture of continuous improvement, small changes and measurable goals, as well as more major shifts in working, are implemented on an ongoing basis.
Overall improvement of the business is not a project that can be finished and moved on from. It is a process that continues for as long as the business exists.
Employee ideas, regardless of role or level, are welcomed, considered and implemented. The benefits of this openness are:
Wider understanding of the processes and problems involved in the business by seeking the thoughts of workers at the forefront of each process
Increased employee engagement as this openness promotes motivation and trust between the workforce and the employer
With a bottom-up process for change, employees can play an active role in improving the business.
Moreover, the open communications between workers and their employer may pinpoint individuals who are ripe for promotion or who would be better suited to roles that match their skill sets.
In a culture of continuous improvement, successes are recognized and celebrated.
Employees who have been involved in the process of change, including those whose ideas may have led to the start of that process, are rewarded.
This may be a benefit to them in the workplace, such as a safer work environment, a reward of recognition (for example, a mention in the monthly newsletter) or a more obvious reward such as a monetary bonus.
As an ongoing process, a culture of continuous improvement relies on continuous feedback.
This could come from regular measurement of success or a continuing openness to ideas from employees.
Involving the entire workforce in the process of change makes it possible to have a wider viewpoint from which to draw feedback.
Working in a culture of continuous improvement may seem a daunting prospect at first.
Change is often seen as time-consuming, difficult to process and, on occasion, even frightening. However, when you shift the focus from ‘change’ to ‘improvement’, it becomes something altogether more positive.
The benefits of working for a business that is open to your ideas, willing to involve you in how the business develops and is continually seeking to be the best it can be, far outweigh the fear of change.
An employer who instigates continuous improvement is better equipped to build a sustainable future with their workforce in mind.