Continuous Improvement | 5 Steps to Implement
A continuous improvement (CI) culture refers to a shift in the way employees think about their work, a mindset that makes people eager to become better every day, through increment improvements. When developed carefully, a Continuous Improvement culture naturally instils in people the desire to become better and strive for excellence.
Even though we talk about organisational culture as a mindset first and actions second, the truth is that both mindsets and behaviours are difficult to change. So, while it won’t happen overnight, that doesn’t mean that we can’t make that change happen. Here we’ve listed five practical steps that can help you make progress on the path towards a continuous improvement culture.
1. Create the right atmosphere
Creating a safe space where everyone feels welcomed and valued contributes to innovation and enables accountability. The emphasis should be on emotional safety and it can be created when employees are valued as individuals and listened.
How can you then achieve this? Involve everyone in meetings, always leave your door open for conversations, give feedback and let them know why you value them. Offer learning and development opportunities by allocating time, funding, or just encouragement to follow their personal and professional goals.
2. Implement CI processes
This is an important step in supporting a continuous improvement culture, as processes help you identify new opportunities and add value to your services or products over time.
Choosing the processes that best fit your organisation can be a complex task, but if in doubt, you can consider Kaizen as a first step. Kaizen is ultimately about building a culture where continuous improvement becomes second nature for all employees, so it’s a natural fit.
Another popular approach that goes hand in hand with a continuous improvement culture is lean management, a method of managing and organising work with the aim of improving the company’s performance, especially it’s quality and profitability.
Lean thinking as a management philosophy is useful for improving process speed and quality by eliminating anything unnecessary that doesn’t bring value.
3. Lead by example
We all know that actions speak louder than words. So, leaders act accordingly by becoming an example for their teams. In the previous post, we spoke a bit about the “servant leader”. This style of leadership is clearly opposing the traditional approach to leadership where authority prevails. It has become increasingly popular even among top-ranking companies.
A practical example of putting this into practice is to use a tool for continuous improvement and ideation during regular stand-up meetings with your team. This can help you keep track and implement new ideas which will make everyone feel included.
4. Involve HR
HR departments play a major role in setting the cultural atmosphere and promoting it. Among their key roles in the company, they have to attract, develop and retain talent. This is why they need to be your strategic partner in building a strong continuous improvement culture.
The behavioural norms they use in hiring new people have to be consistent with your company’s values. Traditionally, cultural fit means similar cultural background, education etc. This will likely not lead to optimal results. People might get along well, but that doesn’t mean that such employees would add value to the whole. When making hiring decisions, HR should rather pay attention to the diversity of thought while maintaining cultural fit around key values like honesty, integrity, learning culture, curiosity and openness.
Onboarding sets the tone for new employees and is key for introducing them to the culture in the company, and in setting expectations for their behaviour. This is why it’s important to have a culture-based onboarding procedure that includes training around the culture in the company and providing resources that explain the vision, values and mission of the organisation.
5. Remove barriers
The types of barriers a company is facing can differ from one organisation to the next and so it’s important to pay attention even to the things that might be counterintuitive.
Firstly, as we have said before, changing mindsets can be a huge barrier for organisations. If leaders have a fixed mindset, for example, it is hard to achieve a culture of improvement. But social science shows that mindsets can be developed. Once you understand and identify the right mindsets that leaders should develop, you can create a leadership training program to unlock the effective ones in your organisation.
Another barrier that organisations might encounter is the “knowledge is everything” mantra. In some places, it guides everyone’s work either implicitly or explicitly. While this approach does have its benefits, it can also backfire.
If expert knowledge is praised to the disadvantage of less experienced employees, then it quickly becomes a barrier. Should expert knowledge be deemed more important than anything else, it can lead to all essential information and decision-making being kept in the hands of just a few people.
These are cases where management has the “we know best” attitude and the knowledge of front-line workers or junior employees is discredited. This removes most opportunities for improvement and actual innovation.
In these cases, it also happens that people hold on to that knowledge to bolster their own position, in which case it’s not disseminated widely, but just used for holding onto power. So, it is a good idea to pay attention to these subtle signs that might harm your organisation’s improvement culture.