CI 101, Leadership

10 Ways to help your team to build self-discipline

To achieve a successful continuous improvement culture implementation, leadership needs to Develop new behavior patterns.  Leadership will learn new skills and teach them to the team at the same time, which is a monumental task.  Everybody will have to practice self-discipline to let go of old habits and embrace the new ones.  The heart of the continuous improvement or lean system is a highly flexible and motivated team member that is always improving.  How do you motivate your employees while helping them to create new habits?  Here is a list of ten things you can do to help them to build self-discipline.

  1. Model the new behaviors every day, go to gemba, ask with respect, and always explain why.  Set a good example, teach your team how to do it, be consistent and persistent.  
  2. Foster an environment of respect and collaboration.
  3. Encourage daily improvements, kaizen events, PDCA, and root cause analysis.
  4. Take your time to listen, get to know your team, and become a teacher and a facilitator.
  5. Give feedback often, create a reward system, and a formal performance appraisal program, which includes a real development plan.
  6. Give specific instructions and communicate clear expectations, follow-up, and assess.
  7. Ensure everybody knows what performance metrics are used to measure success and make them visible.  
  8. Conduct daily stand-up or huddle meetings, discuss what we did good, what we can improve.  Celebrate the wins!
  9. Promote customer satisfaction to see the process from customer lenses.
  10. Be present, visit the workplace every day, not just when there are problems.  And when you go, acknowledge the good things your team is doing and come back with at least one improvement idea.

When employees participate daily in housekeeping, small improvement steps, problem-solving, and standards review they start to see the difference from the previous culture and understand the benefits of the continuous improvement culture.  Learning and becoming an integral part of the company’s success are ways to make them feel that their work is meaningful, and you appreciate it.  When leadership is showing them what to do and how to do it they not only learn but start to build trust and discipline to do what is expected.

CI 101

What is Big Company Disease? How do you cure that disease?

While business is small, you can see all the way from suppliers to customers.  It is easier to stay in contact and collaborate with them to create innovation and mutual processes improvements and growth.  Once the company grows to a certain size, they are vulnerable to the Big Company Disease (BCD).

When the company grows big enough, it needs to create departments and systems to handle things that are handled previously by a few people.  With more employees within those departments, it comes more specialists.  These specialists are focus on one or two things and lose sight of everything else.  If each of those departments has different goals, the shared vision, alignment, and common focus will slightly disappear until they are gone, and silos are born.

Once the silos culture starts, it is hard to change.  Each team has its own set of priorities, and all their activities revolved around them.  Win or lose is defined by their performance around those priorities and goals, lacking alignment with other groups.  Each is pulling to their side, holding information, working with the knowledge of one side of the story only, and blaming others for their problems.  Providing value to their customers with the best quality at the lowest price is no longer a team goal.  

If you see these symptoms on the company you manage or own, it is already infected with BCD.


Focus on group efficiency and department goals.  The relationship between departments is complicated and full of drama.  Instead of working together to solve problems and improve the operation, there is an attitude of We vs. Them.  Pointing fingers and blaming is part of the culture, and it is common to hear things like “We do things different” or “They never understand”.   

Disengaging people

The energy, passion, and family feeling from the small business times are gone.  Without that energy and desire to be better, innovation and drive to try different and bold things are not there.  The employees don’t feel the same level of loyalty, and some are disengaged.  There is no team or group identity.  

Ineffective communication

Managers and supervisors are information hoarders, only share it when they are questions or specific instructions to do so by leadership.   However, excess emails and multiple lengthy meetings overwhelm people at all levels.  

Lack of alignment

The lack of companywide focus affects the relationship with customers.  Everybody is busy fighting their fires, which makes them lose touch with customers and suppliers.   There is no alignment on critical things for the operation success like communication style, visual standards, and work instructions formats, training, problem-solving methods, and way of thinking.  All these create a complex decision-making process, multiple rules, duplicated functions, and focus on the wrong things.

The cure for BCD is to apply the Lean Fundamentals.  

  1. Customer Value 
  2. Identify all the steps in the value stream and eliminate waste.
  3. Make the value-add steps flow.
  4. Let customers pull value from the next upstream activity.
  5. Pursuit for perfection through Continuous Improvement.

When the company applies the Lean Fundamentals, leadership learn, teach, and promote the basic principles every day. Every person, in every department, participates in daily continuous improvement activities, identifying and eliminating waste, and using PDCA for problem-solving.  Leadership identifies learning opportunities and never lose the chance to have people from different departments working together.  Everybody knows what value their work creates for the customer and how it affects the company’s overall business strategy.  They also know the collective goals and work with their peers from other departments towards its achievement.  Lean is about learning and experimenting together while the company grows and fights big company disease.  

CI 101

What activities are critical to achieve the Kaizen goals? Employee involvement is key.

The focus of kaizen is quality, cost, and delivery.  To accomplish improvements in those areas there are a few activities that should take place on a daily basis.  Some of those activities are quality and safety management, cost and logistics management, and processes, products, and materials follow-up.  Other daily activities are the major Kaizen activities or pillars which are standardization, 5S, and waste elimination.

Kaizen or continuous improvement is a people’s based system.  It only works when there is active participation from the employees.  If you forget that the people are the heart of the lean-continuous improvement system, all efforts to implement kaizen as part of the culture will be in vain.

The activities mentioned in the first paragraph will be successful only if the company has a solid foundation of employee involvement elements or systems.  Those are teamwork, self-discipline, improvement suggestions, morale enhancement, and quality circles.

Respect is one of the most important principles of lean.  One way to show respect is by taking the time to develop the team’s skills.  They deserve to have learning opportunities to learn and practice. Kaizen focuses on hands-on activities rather than classroom instruction. In other words, it is an exercise of learning by doing. Continuous improvement uses a team approach, with people from different departments and organizational levels working together towards a common goal.  While working together, they learn new skills and acquire self-discipline together.  They also get to know each other as people, gaining an understanding of their differences, and building upon them.

These type of activities increases collaboration, engagement, and morale.  When learning and coaching are based on respect and genuine desire to develop the team skills to increase their knowledge and empower them with some decisions, the base or foundation for continuous improvement is solid.  Employee involvement activities are critical to achieving improvement goals in the areas of quality, cost, and delivery.

CI 101

How do you develop new behaviors while creating a continuous improvement culture?

As a business owner or top leader of a company, you are thinking about implementing continuous improvement.  This means that you will need a culture change.  To learn how leadership and the team will react to it, you need to understand a few things before.  You need to learn about the current culture and the company history regarding policies, salary systems, and politics, before planning the implementation.  That information will also help you to identify what needs to change and highlight the challenges to create a new culture.  Develop new behavior patterns, is the fourth action from the top leadership to-do list to achieve the elements of a successful CI implementation.  

Commonly, past collective experience is based on thoughts and behaviors that you need to change.  A culture based on disrespect, lack of appreciation, lack of clarity, dysfunctional competition, us versus them mentality, and values talk without action is no longer acceptable.

We need to guide people with a clear, inspiring, and shared vision of the future.  Continuous improvement is not easy, and although it has many sweet rewards, it also has disappointments and brings some failures as well.  Be honest about the challenges in front of them, answer their questions, and never back up from the objective.  Talk the talk, but most importantly, walk the talk, a voice without action will not do any good to gain the trust of your employees.

Leadership must become coaches who are communicating the idea of continuous improvement all the time.  Every leaders’ responsibility is to model the desired behaviors.  Learn and practice lean thinking and promote challenging the status quo.  Prove with actions that it is ok to try and fail as long as you never stop trying.  Show them how to test new ideas using a system like PDCA.  Get used to reflect upon every win, and every loss, share the lesson learned and use them to improve the improvement process.

Leaders should watch for stress reactions, such as threats, resignation, or illness.  They need to work with those affected to understand why and create an action plan.  It is normal to feel high levels of stress or fear because the team is still weighing if they can trust the new culture.  There are many uncertainties during the change, and for that reason, constant, honest, and effective communication is critical.

Set achievable milestones, prioritization, and practice positive feedback.  Develop a fair performance assessment program designed to develop people’s skills and not to punish them.  Avoid anything that can result in frustration or underutilization of individuals. 

As I said before, as long as leadership keeps fulfilling their continuous improvement responsibilities, implementation will keep going and slowly, but surely, the culture will change.  

CI 101, CI Tools

What are the three pillars of Kaizen?

Kaizen or continuous improvement is the daily practice of creating small changes using low-cost common-sense solutions.  Kaizen’s pillars or major activities are 5S, standardization, and waste elimination.

Where there is no standard, there can be no improvement.  For these reasons, standards are the basis for both maintenance and improvement

Misaaki Imai

Housekeeping and 5S are basic activities for any continuous improvement effort.  Employees acquire self-discipline by practicing 5S daily.  Without discipline, it is impossible to sustain a continuous improvement culture.  The 5S purpose is to create a visual workplace.  The objective is to make problems visible, which is quite uncomfortable.  It is normal to try to hide problems to avoid undesired questions from the boss or dealing with them.  5S and visual management make the out-of-standard situation easy to recognize, and employees can easily correct it.

When we fail to achieve the expected results, it is because the process fails.  Many times, it fails because there is no standard.  Each individual has a way to do things.  Standard work is the safest, highest quality, and most efficient way to execute a particular task.  Standardization is the practice of setting, communicating, following, and improving standards and standard work.  The best way to achieve consistent results and minimize mistakes is to follow the standard work.  

To improve the results, we have to improve the process.  But we need to have standards in place before we try to improve it.  That is why standardization is one of the earlier steps on the lean journey.  Visual management is a way to standardize, it helps to recognize defects, inventory, waiting times, and other types of waste.  Waste elimination is a cost-effective way to improve processes and reduce operating costs.

The first steps on the lean journey are to stabilize the process, create standards, and visual management.  Process stabilization is achieved by practicing 5S and waste identification.  Standards produce a clear image of the desired condition.  You cannot fix what you don’t see. By making conditions out of standard visible, 5S, standards, and waste elimination are the pillars of kaizen or continuous improvement.

CI 101

Humans err, how do you build robust systems?

Humans err, we make mistakes all the time.  While working, it is common to feel the pressure to finish the workload on time.  Interruptions and problems with the material, equipment, or computerized systems only add more stress and increase the opportunities to make mistakes.  But those are not the only sources of stress, and therefore of defects or errors.  The process itself can be the biggest problem if it is not robust and aim to keep human error to a minimum.  A good system or process reduces the worker’s physical and mental burden by eliminating the need to inspect for common mistakes that leads to defects. 

A bad system will beat a good person every time.

W. Edwards Deming

How do you know that a process is not robust?  If it has one or more of the following characteristics is a perfect candidate for a Kaizen or continuous improvement event.   

  • It has a high defects rate
  • Nobody wants to do it; people are regularly complaining about how difficult it is
  • The workers often missed steps or use the wrong material
  • Missing parts or information 
  • The equipment is not set-up properly
  • The machine, program, or tools do not operate as desired

How do you build a robust system?  Like with any other continuous improvement activity, it is critical to have the participation of the team.  They know better than anybody else how it should work and the daily hassles and challenges.  These are some things to do to design a robust system.

  1. Learn what are the most common mistakes and rack them based on severity or frequency.  Choose one or two to tackle during this event.
  2. Listen to the voice of the customer, in this case, your employees.  Because they feel the pain and stress, it is in their best interest to fix the faulty process.  Ask them why they make mistakes?  You can use the cause and effect analysis or the 5 Why to find the root cause.   
  3. Brainstorming for improvement ideas, look for preventive measures.  How can you prevent the mistake from happening?
  4. Promote mistake-proofing devices as a method to prevent mistakes.  These devices reduce or minimize the chances of human error.
  5. While improving the process, instill on your employees the concept, Quality at the source.  Instead of having people downstream inspecting the product, each person is responsible for their work inspection.   If they find a defect, take corrective action, and avoid passing it to the next person.    

Robust systems acknowledge that mistakes happen and aim to achieve smooth processes with fewer defects. This kind of system improves the work environment by removing the blame culture.  So, instead of blaming the worker, fix the process by making it robust. 

CI 101

What is the role of leadership in implementing continuous improvement?

Leadership defines the organizational culture, and the company culture determines how employees react to the news regarding continuous improvement or lean implementation.  For that reason, they carry a heavyweight to change, model, and sustain the new culture.  In my last post, I listed five actions to do to achieve the elements of a successful CI implementation.  Today I will discuss the third one, which is to Demand leadership responsibility.

We can summarize their new responsibilities in five pieces. 

  1. Understand the current culture and learn what needs to change to have a CI culture.
  2. Learn continuous improvement principles by doing.
  3. Develop the team by teaching what they just learn.
  4. Motivate participation.
  5. Model the new behavior.

Just as the CEO or top leader had to study the current culture and how it would affect implementation, other leaders have to do the same.  It is important to see the difference between present practices and continuous improvement culture.  They need to understand how the current situation will affect their implementation efforts.

Change creates stress on employees; how much depends on the culture.  When employees do not trust management, the level of stress will be higher. The fear of losing the job or getting new responsibilities will affect their performance and the reaction to those changes.  Effective communication is critical to relay the correct message.  The leadership group should explain what is going to happen, when, how, answer their questions, and clarify doubts. 

As the top leader, you have to model this behavior and show them what you expect to see.  Although you can expect some resistance, keep coaching them, take your time to ensure they learn the basic concepts.  Be calm and patient but do not accept deviations from the expected behavior.  Those who cannot adopt the new model become roadblocks.  There are only two options for them, they learn and adapt, or unfortunately, they will have to go.  

Learning new behaviors and ways to do things is never easy.  When you have to learn and teach your team, what you are just learning, it makes you feel uneasy.  Supervisors and managers are used to having all the answers, that is what people expect from them.  During this journey, they will learn while they are teaching.  They will realize how much they learned, or not at the moment they have to explain those principles and tools to their team.  They will feel vulnerable not knowing the answers or making the mistakes.  One of the first things that everybody needs to learn, is that in continuous improvement it is ok to make mistakes.  Continuous improvement is about using a systematic approach to learn about the process and improve it, one step at a time.  

The beauty of this is that while the leader learns, the team learns as well.  It is a welcome change when they see that their supervisor is learning and doing the same as they are.  While the leaders become coaches, the team is empowered to learn new things, and unleash their creativity to improve their own work.  It is important to highlight that these coaches are going to teach by showing how to do it, follow-up for questions or doubts, and then let go.  They are not supposed to have all the answers, the team is driving the solution of the millions of little problems they have every day.  

It is a leadership job to walk the working areas to observe the process, ask questions with respect when they notice that there is a deviation between the standard and the actual performance, and challenge the team to fix it.  It is also their job to support the team and help by providing resources and removing roadblocks when it is needed.  They need to model the behaviors they are asking their team to have.  There is no more do what I say, not what I do.  Effective leaders lead by example.  It is part of their daily job to promote lean thinking and insist on using the CI tools.As long as leadership keeps fulfilling their continuous improvement responsibilities, implementation will keep going and slowly, but surely, the culture will change.  This entire process takes time, blood, and tears, but all that is nothing compared with the rewards.

CI 101

How to achieve the key elements for continuous improvement success

From What are the key elements for CI success? we know that for a successful continuous improvement implementation we need the following.

  1. Leadership buy-in and support
  2. Culture change, lean thinking & people’s development
  3. Effective Communication every step of the way
  4. Use the right CI tools, create your own toolbox
  5. Continuous improvement everywhere, every day, by everybody

As a business owner or top leader of your organization, you have a huge responsibility to make this happen. The implementation is something that you should not delegate.  If you don’t know how to do it or if you are not familiar with it, find a responsible coach to guide you through this journey.  There are a few fundamental actions to ride successfully the implementation road.  

  1. Review job environment and satisfaction
  2. Develop our people first and motivate participation
  3. Demand leadership responsibility
  4. Develop new behavior patterns
  5. Promote lean thinking and insist on following the new methods and tools

I discussed the first one in the post How does the work environment affect the lean implementation? The job environment review is critical to understand how the company culture will affect the implementation.  Complete this action before you start to practice continuous improvement.  Incorporate other as part of your daily job as a top leader.  Today I will cover the second action, develop our people first, and motivate participation.

The mission of continuous improvement is to develop team skills.  Respect for the people is at the core of lean thinking and is one of the top three characteristics of the right work environment for CI success.  One of the lean thinking principles is that the people doing the work design it and solve the problems.  The leaders guide the team by respectfully asking questions.  They teach them problem-solving and data analysis tools and support them in providing resources and removing roadblocks.  The leaders are now coaches, not bosses.

Link the company Vision and Mission statements to the continuous improvement activities.  Align those activities to the company goals and objectives.  Continuous improvement is not a project but part of everybody’s daily work and should be part of their performance review.  Ensure that these things are communicated, discussed, and explain to everybody.

Build a team to work on tying together communication, training, participation, and employee’s performance.  The objective is to define and clarify responsibilities, set expectations, and incentivize participation.  This team is responsible for reviewing the job descriptions, performance system, incentive program, and creating a suggestion program.  

An important piece to motivate participation is training tailored to the company and industry.  A good trainer will design the training based on the audience and their preferred learning method.  Lean is about learning by doing, make sure to provide enough theory to support the hands-on activities.   

The success of the new culture and CI implementation is based on communication, teamwork, alignment between objectives and actions, motivation, and training.  Regardless of how difficult the journey may be, always use Lean Thinking as your North.

CI 101

How do you improve your process flow? How to reduce or eliminate process flow obstacles.

The goal of continuous improvement is to provide the customer, with the highest quality, at the lowest cost in a shorter time.  For a shorter time, your processes need to flow without interruptions or obstacles.  How do you achieve that? Yes, you guessed it, you have to identify and eliminate waste.  These are the steps that you can use to improve the flow.

  1. Start with your longer processes to assure biggest impact on the operation.  
  2. Define the value of the process from the customer lenses.  
  3. Go to see the process.
  4. Breakdown the process in steps and ask what is the purpose, why it is necessary?
  5. Can you combine or eliminate steps?
  6. Can you rearrange steps to improve flow?
  7. Can you reduce or eliminate waste?
  8. Can you move equipment, machines or workstations closer together to minimize distance?
  9. Is it possible to reduce work-in-process inventory?

When you go to see the process, walk through the entire flow, and observe where it stops.  Waste is usually a symptom of obstacles to flow.  Every time you see work-in-process inventory, defects or errors, people waiting, excessive motion, or longer than necessary transportation, you are looking at things that stop the flow.

When you improve the flow, you are reducing the process cycle time.  That is how you will be able to deliver your product or service faster to your clients.  Reducing or eliminating waste is also a way to reduce operating expenses in the form of inventories and defects reduction.  

CI 101

What is the right environment for improvements?

Previously, I discussed how the job environment affects lean implementation.  The company culture determines how employees react to the news regarding continuous improvement or lean implementation.  The reaction goes from confusion to disbelieve.  If leadership credibility is not the best, many will think that this is the flavor of the month and will unconsciously sabotage the efforts.  Once an organization starts down this road, it must keep going, or risk losing all credibility.  

In my experience, there are three characteristics or values that describe the right environment for implementation.  If they are not part of the culture, continuous improvement will be just a dream.  Those values are the following.

Respect for the people

Respect for the people is at the core of lean thinking.  The team is the heart of the lean system, as leaders, it is our responsibility to develop, empower, recognize, and provide learning and growing opportunities for our team.  One way to show respect is the creation of fair rewarding and pay systems.  Although money is not the best way to show appreciation, it is important.  For some leaders, the biggest challenge is to learn how to treat their team as people and not just employees.  Leaders should actively listen to understand their team concerns, what they care about, and ideas.  Respectful treatment and rules are the same for everybody regardless of the role or years of service.  Consistency and kindness create the trust environment that is critical for the next value, learning.  


To practice continuous improvement, you need to break with traditional ways of thinking and doing things.  You will need to learn new ways of doing old tasks.  CI will expose new problems and bigger challenges; therefore, learning requires discipline and persistence to keep going.  The leader’s job is to find ways to motivate, unleash creativity, promote collaboration, and encourage people to learn by doing.  However, some classroom training on fundamentals is necessary for skills development.  In CI, you either win or learn.  Leadership has to bury the fear of losing and learn that it is ok to make mistakes.  Also, encourage the attitude of we can do it, instead of saying that it cannot be done.


Communication is critical to organizations, regardless of the industry, size, or CI status.  The biggest challenge here is learning to listen to understand, never to judge.  Promote a strong two-way communication environment is easier said than done, especially when the starting point is the traditional “I say, you do” management.   Effective communication needs the delivery of clear and complete information, which includes objectives, and the clarification of roles responsibilities.  People need to know how the company’s performance and plans for the future.  They also need timely and clear feedback regarding their performance.  These conversations sometimes are tough, but necessary.  Waiting until the performance appraisal time to give feedback is disrespectful and contrary to all the values listed here.