How do you sell the need for continuous improvement?

Know what matter to your team before you start to sell the need for continuous improvement.

This week I was facilitating a workshop for a group of team leaders and supervisors.  The subject was managing and sustaining 5S.  I asked what their biggest concern is to implement and sustain 5S.  Close to 70% of them answer that selling the need for it.  How do you sell the need for continuous improvement?  How do you get your team to buy in to lean? 

Using benefits to sell the need for continuous improvement

The answer of the workshop participants did not surprise me. My experience tells me that they were right on the money. For a long time, I struggle to get the buy-in of the team. It took me years before I realize what I was doing wrong.

During the launching phase, I talked about the benefits of continuous improvement. For example, for a 5S implementation, I mentioned things like better organization, increased productivity, cleaner machines, and no search for tools. But I failed to tell people what was vital for them.

People respond to what matters to them

Unfortunately, sometimes we forget that who we are is an inherent part of everything we do. Our beliefs, values, and life purpose are at the front and center of all our decisions. Even when we don’t realize that we are doing it, those things guide ours thought process.

Talking about how continuous improvement or 5S will benefit the company will not gain their buy-in. Your team needs to know what is in there for them. We would gain their support when they see how this new initiative connects with their needs and who they are. It is our job to find that connection and communicate it to them. To know that, we have to answer a few questions.

  • What are the most important things for them? – family, community, personal values
  • What higher purpose they pursue? – fighting climate change, curing cancer
  • Their personal goals – professional and personal
  • How do the team feel about their work?  – content, frustrated

Answer their questions and concerns to sell the need for CI  

Every proposed change will encounter resistance or hesitancy. None of those changes will be sustainable unless the team understands and support them. This statement is true for continuous improvement, 5S, or anything else. Job security gained through increased profits or better customer service is a great selling point. However, maybe it is not connected to their values or emotional needs.

To sell the need to change, you need to understand their goals and what they value. When the team sees the relationship between what matters to them and your proposal, buy-in and sustainability have better chances. Ensure that your communication plan highlights that relationship. Also, answer any other questions and concerns they may have before they voice them.  

How do you overcome resistance?

Every transformation effort will face resistance.  An effective plan can help to overcome most of it.

Every transformation effort will hit the resistance wall sooner or later.  In general, in the beginning, your team will be divided following the 20/60/20 rule.  The rule states that approximately 20% will be happy to participate, 60% will watch from distance, and another 20% will resist the change.  

How to handle resistance with each group

Those who are happy to participate, or at least try, are your golden group.  They can help to spread the enthusiasm.  The resistance group will actively work as roadblocks.  They will oppose every idea and maybe even try to convince people to stop or delay progress.  

Focus your efforts on the 60% group.  With the right transformation plan, you can influence this group and have them participating in the transformation.  Treat the first group as your advocates and helpers.  With the participation of these two groups, things will start to get traction.  Eventually, they will convince most of the resistance group.  

Use the transformation plan to overcome resistance

While there are no magic bullets, an effective plan will help address some situations that cause resistance.  For example, explain what will change, the reason for the change, and how it will happen.  

A critical part of the transformation is the communication plan.  Think who, when, and how to break the news.  Start saying why the culture needs to change.  Explain the reason to invest time and resources into a conversion of the company mindsets and methods.  Be open and honest about those reasons. Also, be transparent about the challenges ahead.  Moreover, explain in detail what the goal is, what do you want to achieve.  In other words, try to answer all the possible questions before they become a source of resistance.

Build your plan around the team needs

Your team is the most critical resource in the journey from traditional to continuous improvement. Assess the gaps between the skills and knowledge your team need and currently has.  Talk about education and training.  For instance, cite examples of training needs and how you will close the gap.

Changes are stressful, remove a bit of anxiety by presenting the big picture, a high-level view of the roadmap to success.  Present how success looks like, what the expectations are.  Monitor the execution of each step of the plan and report back to the team how things are going.  Be honest about what is working and what is not.  Reflect with the group about lessons learned and celebrate together every win regardless of how big or small.

Your people are the heart of your business, the most valuable asset.  When you take care of them, they take care of your customers.  Keep the focus on providing them all the support and guidance they need throughout the transformation.  Listening to their concerns and act upon those things that you can improve is critical for a successful transformation.

The roadmap to continuous improvement success

The roadmap to success is challenging, however it is possible to achieve.

While creating the roadmap for the transformation, it is critical to keep in mind your people, customers, and how you will execute the plan to ensure sustainability.  To ensure success in the transformation into a continuous improvement culture, maintain the focus on those three aspects.

Roadmap to respect and teamwork

Continuous improvement is a people’s system.  Your team is the heart that keeps the CI thinking alive and kicking.  Therefore, it is a good practice to evaluate your company culture before you start and every year after that.  You want to know if the culture is changing in the right direction.  For example, if the levels of engagement are increasing or employee turnover is decreasing.

Respect for the people and teamwork are the foundation of the new culture.  Leadership shows respect and promotes collaboration in different ways.  Visiting gemba every day to see problems and listening to their team concerns to find solutions together is one way.  Another is to take advantage of those moments to teach them how to analyze them, find the root cause, and create solutions.  Those gemba walks along with huddle meetings help to give clarity, alignment, and effective communication.  

Participation increases when they have a clear vision of how their work fits within the company mission.  In other words, to know how what they do affects the customer and the company’s bottom line.    

Customer experience journey during the transformation

The focus of our daily operation is the customer.  The continuous improvement goal is to deliver the best quality product or service, at the lowest cost, in the shortest amount of time.  But to be able to do that, we need to know first what they need.

What problem or need are you looking to solve or fulfill.  What constitutes value from the customer lenses?  Listening to the voice of your customers is as important as listening to your team.  Use your customer input to create new value proposals, redesign processes, and guide improvement events.

Sometimes, you think you know what they need, but the truth is that there are times when not even they know.  If it is possible, look for ways to feel the experience yourself.  Observe the process to understand the challenges your customers deal with.  By doing this, you will see what the real problems are.  Maybe what you perceive as a quality problem is a service issue.

Also, keep in mind that their needs and wants can change over time.  Go out to gemba or the marketplace as often as you can and talk with your customers, current, and potential.  Ask questions to understand their pain points and needs.  Get a look at what your competitors are doing or how your customers look at them.

Roadmap to excellence

A strategy is a way to achieve the mission and provides the framework to make decisions.   To achieve excellence, you need the help of your team.  Therefore, they need to know which is the strategy.  Moreover, if you give them participation in creating the execution plan, the chances of success grow exponentially.   

However, a good plan is not good enough if it does not include how to sustain the change.  There are a couple of things that are critical in this plan.  One of them is how to make sure that every day everybody participates in continuous improvement activities.  Another is the establishment of a daily management system that ensures that leadership will do their part.  Integral parts of this system are the gemba walks, leader standard work, and huddle meetings.  

To follow-up progress, make sure to identify key operating metrics that are aligned with the company goals.  Translate these metrics from top leadership to the shop floor or office.  You will need them to make visual management work.  Make it easy for everybody to know if the company is winning or losing.  The sooner you can identify that something is not working, the sooner you can change course.

Also, plan to evaluate the safety program, training needs, desired behaviors within the new culture, and business performance in different areas.  For example, assess productivity, quality, delivery, and operating costs.

Follow the roadmap to achieve CI success

The road to excellence is bumpy, with curves, hurdles, and other challenges.  However, it is also a great adventure where the daily journey is more important than the final goal.  Consistency is the name of the game.  Practice day, even when you think it is not working.  Never stop learning, practicing, and teaching.  The reward is knowing that you are changing lives, growing your team, and in the process building a flexible and profitable business.

Overcommunicate to prevent problems, right?

Overcommunication is used with specific information to keep the team focus and aligned

I once had a conversation with a seasoned manager who proudly explained different ways his company uses to prevent problems.  One of them strikes my attention and curiosity.  He claimed that they overcommunicate to make sure things go as planned. 

What overcommunication means?

When I asked what he means by overcommunication, his explanation left me worried.  For instance, his definition was indeed what it is not.  Dumping all kinds of information through countless emails, oversharing, or repeating instructions while checking performance is not the right way to do it.  

First, over-communication is not a way to share all kinds of things.  It is used only to clarify and reinforcing critical information.  For example, to convey instructions or concerns during crisis times, top priorities, and the company vision.  Second, it is about communicating the right things effectively.  In other words, in a clear, consistent way, promoting collaboration between teams.  By sharing the right things frequently, you ensure alignment between the company vision and the daily operations.

Overcommunicate prevent problems, right?

When you over-communicate in the right way, it is possible to prevent problems.  However, when what you are doing is oversharing or micromanaging, the results are different.  The team can feel distracted by too much information, overwhelmed, or frustrated.  And they have all the right to feel that way because that behavior is disrespectful.  The team will respond much better if you convey the information effectively.  If you want them to remember the company’s core values and vision, become a model of those behaviors.  Also, incorporate the enterprise vision in what you do and become a coach.

Communicate right, do not overcommunicate

Excessive communication is not the right way to prevent problems.  Effective communication is the right way to ensure everybody receives and understands the same message.  When you disseminate critical information frequently enough, people will know that it is meaningful.  Over time, they will start to use it, and the result is alignment between values and daily actions such as problem-solving, project selection, and others.

What can derail your transformation effort?

what can derail your transformation

Currently, I am planning a complete site assessment.  It is a preliminary step before the creation of the transformation roadmap.   While working on it, I couldn’t help but remember an experience I had various years ago.  During that time, I was the leader of the continuous improvement transformation. Despite my best effort, it was not successful.  What did I do wrong?  Where did we fail as a team?  Some years passed and quite some reflection time as well before I realized what derailed that effort.  What can derail the transformation?

Not understanding what you are getting into might derail your transformation.

There are various misconceptions regarding continuous improvement.  As a result, many entrepreneurs decide to start their journey believing some of them.  For instance, many times, the reason to initiate the effort is cited as costs reduction.  Here are some misconceptions that can derail the transformation.

Continuous improvement is not a cost reduction initiative.  Furthermore, it is not a tools supermarket where you can pick and choose what you like.  CI or lean is not a one-size-fits-all approach.  It is different for each company, even for each site.  The transformation is not fast or straightforward.  For instance, it is a slow process with moments of success followed by setbacks. Also, it is common to have times with total clarity of purpose followed by thousands of doubts.  The lack of understanding of all these facts soon will become challenges that leadership is not prepared to deal with.

To overcome the inevitable challenges, leadership needs to understand that lean is a people’s system. CI is not about using tools.  The company culture needs to change its focus from financial profit to their people’s development and customer satisfaction.  The transformation from traditional to continuous improvement requires being humble and courageous.  It is not easy to be vulnerable and willing to expose your weaknesses as a leader.  Neither is to let go of the control of the day-to-day operation.  

Misalignment between company goals and continuous improvement

Traditionally, company goals are different for each department.  Therefore, each team member will work towards department goals that do not promote collaboration.  This type of goal perpetuates the silo mentality, which is a CI thinking killer.

In a continuous improvement environment, the goal is to provide the customer with the highest quality, at a lower cost, in the shortest amount of time.   For that reason, the collective goals focus on productivity, quality, cost, delivery time, safety, and morale.  People from different departments collaborate to achieve those goals.    

Not having the top leadership buy-in will derail the transformation

The buy-in and support from leadership are key for a successful CI journey.  Their support is critical to building the CI fundamentals into the company culture.  Alignment between KPI’s and metrics with the company goals is crucial for success.  Leadership is responsible for ensuring this happens, and therefore CI focus will be the right one.  

A unified front from this group will help overcome the challenges, setbacks, and resistance to change. One of their responsibilities will be to learn the continuous improvement fundamentals and tools and teach their team. They become students and teachers, modeling the new behaviors and focusing on long-term strategy instead of day-to-day decisions.


Knowing what can derail your company’s culture transformation is the first step to avoid those mistakes.  Educate yourself and your team before starting your journey.  Learn about the elements for a successful continuous improvement transformation.  Perhaps, it is a good idea to find a responsible and CI transformation seasoned person to help.

Good communicators listen, are you a good listener?

Are you a good listener?

Continuous improvement and lean need effective communication for its success.  Lean is a people-centric system, which means that the way you treat and communicate with people is critical for success.  Therefore, for a successful continuous improvement journey, you need to be a good communicator.  One of the characteristics of good communicators is that they listen.  Are you a good listener?

When you go out to the office, shop floor, or construction site, AKA gemba, you ask questions to understand what is happening.  However, you can ask good questions, but if you don’t listen, you are missing the point of visiting gemba.

What is a good listener?

Many people believe that being a good listener is let the other person talk without interruptions. Furthermore, nod or repeat a few words.  It is a common belief that a good listener repeats a few words to confirm that you understand.  But a good listener does more than that.

Continuous improvement fosters an environment of learning and discovery.  Asking the right questions helps to promote curiosity and observation.  Leaders are expected to teach and guide their team through questions.  Good communicators are thoughtful about the questions they ask.  The purpose is to understand and help the speaker to gain a deeper understanding of the situation.  In addition, you want to guide them to uncover more details.  For example, think about the priorities or benefits versus risks. 

A good listener uses active listening

Active listening occurs when you suppress the need to dominate the conversation or provide ways to solve problems.  Instead, you listen and focus on the speaker.  Be empathic with the other person.  Notice the speaker’s body language, tone, and emotions while it speaks.  Recognize the implication of the words by understanding how he/she feels.  

Create a safe environment to have an honest conversation.  Listen with curiosity and ask questions to understand.  Also, watch your body language.  For instance, maintain eye contact and use appropriate gestures.  Show respect by keeping your whole attention on the speaker. 

But there is more to it than listening and asking questions

In addition to asking questions, there is something more a good listener does.  A conversation is an exchange of ideas.  Clarify your doubts and restate their thought to confirm that you understand.  Provide feedback to keep the conservation going.  However, resist the urge to tell what to do.  Build upon the speaker’s ideas, help them to build their self-esteem. Answer their questions honestly and clarify their doubts.

Listening and cultural transformation

Effective communication at every stage of cultural transformation is crucial.  People need to know what, why, how, when, and who.  During the process, leadership work to facilitate the team’s work and develop their skills.  To increase their engagement, daily Gemba walks supported with effective communication are key.  

The team needs to know what the problem is and what you want to accomplish with a continuous improvement strategy.  Moreover, leadership needs to listen to what the team has to say.  If you don’t practice active listening and do something upon the subject of that conversation, the transformation will be broken.

Team communication, how do you know it needs to improve?

team communication

While I was facilitating a problem-solving session in a client facility, I noticed that something was wrong.  We were discussing the possible causes for the problem under analysis.  Three team members were very active in the discussion providing thoughtful ideas.  However, the rest of the group was either silent or being sarcastic.  Another person was constantly interrupting others while yelling.  I ask the event sponsor if those behaviors were normal, and he said they were.  He didn’t see it that way, but the team’s behavior was asking for help.  Those actions were a symptom of a deeper problem.  That is, team communication needed improvement.

How do you know team communication needs to improve?

The situation described above contains several signs that indicate the team communication is poor.  When a team cannot collaborate, productivity and quality can affect the company’s bottom line.  Therefore, it is a priority to learn how to identify those signs and fix them.

Despite having technical knowledge, the company from the example hire me as the facilitator.  The reason is that they have not been able to get the expected results.  

Be on the lookout for these signs

Over the week, I had multiple individual conversations with team members and the sponsor.  As a result, I identify several behaviors that affect communication.  All of them are signs of ineffective team communication.  

Confusion regarding responsibilities or priorities leads to frustration.  As a result, you can see duplicate work, missed deadlines, or not getting expected results.  In turn, those results create disappointment, anger, and more frustration.  When this happens, it is common to see disrespect as part of the culture.  For example, you can see rude reactions, demeaning communication, and finger-pointing.

People deal with frustration in different ways.  Sometimes, even when they are silent, their demeanor screams disagreement.  Team communication is failing when you sense that people have concerns but never voice their opinion.  Likewise, if they constantly interrupt the conversation or scream to ensure their voice is heard.  Another sign is when team members feel the need to compete against each other all the time.  At the same time, there is no collaboration.

How to improve team communication

Effective communication is one of the critical elements for a successful continuous improvement journey.  Another element is the cultural transformation from traditional to lean thinking.  A culture that values respect and teamwork fosters creativity and collaboration.  

People need to know how their work connects with the company goals.  Also, they need to understand how their actions affect the customers and business growth.  Knowing that information is easier to understand why collaboration is critical to the success of the company.  When the company is still in the early steps of the transformation, it is natural for some individuals to push back.  However, as soon as you notice behaviors like those previously indicated, it is time to enforce the new expectations.  Nothing demoralized the team more than seeing their leaders tolerating disrespectful actions.

Sharing ideas in the workplace

Sharing ideas, foster collaboration

A not long time ago, I had a conversation with a continuous improvement professional about collaboration.  The company he works for encourages the sharing of information and ideas.  They share the problem they have, what they tried, and work well. Also, they talk about what did not work well.  In other words, sharing ideas and help each other is part of the culture.

Benefits of sharing knowledge and information

I once saw a place in which culture is the opposite of that one. Some of the leaders were information hoarders.  Sometimes the staff had trouble completing their tasks.  Meanwhile, somebody had the solution but did not share it with them.  As a consequence, employees feel frustrated, and the morale was low.  

On the contrary, when people help each other and share knowledge, morale and engagement are high. Also, in that type of culture, employees are more innovative and creative. Innovation and creativity are fundamental for process improvements and adding value to the customer. Consequently, the business thrives with better customer satisfaction and increasing revenue.

How to encourage sharing ideas in the workplace

There are five key elements to encourage or facilitate sharing ideas and information in the workplace. 

  1. Create the right environment – The company culture fosters creativity and collaboration. They make clear that sharing ideas is not only acceptable but also expected.  Create a judgment-free environment where there are no dumb ideas.  Furthermore that all of them will be considered and have a fair shot of being implemented.
  2. Provide the necessary space and tools – Encourage cross-functional conversations with a bright and open room. A dedicated space where people can meet to brainstorm ideas. The area should have whiteboards, flipcharts, and access to the internet, company intranet. A suggestion program or online system to share ideas are other ways to facilitate sharing ideas.
  3. Be transparent in your communication of business goals, challenges, and good news – When leadership shares this information with the team, ideas pop up in their heads. However, for that to happen, they need to have some information first. Start by explaining how their work affects the customer and the business’s bottom line.
  4. Practice collaboration model the behavior – Share your ideas with the team without fear of being vulnerable. After all, that is what you are asking them to do. Make people feel valued by asking for opinions or help.
  5. Do something with the information you got.  – For instance, ask questions and provide feedback. Even more, propose to fill a suggestion form or if it is something worthy and easy, do it or ask somebody to do it!


Foster an environment that thrives on sharing ideas, not hoarding tribal knowledge.  When leadership shares their wisdom with the team, they feel valued.  Also, by doing that, they are modeling the desired behavior of sharing knowledge.  If knowledge is power, and you share it with the entire team, then they are empowered.  

Ingenuity does not happen by chance; it thrives on collaboration.  When people from different walks of life and diverse experiences collaborate, better ideas and solutions come to life.

Keep it simple! Processes, training, everything.

keep it simple! Simple procedures and communication is easier to understand and follow.

A company culture transformation is an undertaking.  You will attempt to break with old habits and mental models.  Also, you will introduce new ones.  For that reason, you and your leadership team will make many decisions regarding what to do and how to do it.  Later, there will be a lot of communication, skills development, training, and new standards.  While teaching new behaviors, mental models, and ways to do things, keep it simple.

For a successful transformation, keep it simple

Along the transformation journey, you and your team will have countless communication efforts. That communication will happen in different scenarios and formats.  In other words, individual or group settings, in writing or verbal.  Also, you will write new policies, standards, work instructions, and others.  The purpose of the communication or procedures and other details needs to clear.  Keep the receiver or user in mind while deciding the language, design, or communication structure.  Moreover, it needs to be simple, easy to understand and execute.

If you can’t explain it simply, take a step back.

“If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” 

Albert Einstein

Any continuous improvement activity starts with gaining an understanding of the current situation. The cultural transformation begins with a similar process, understanding the present culture.  The knowledge gain during this step helps to design the best way to share with the team the intention to change.

Why do you want to engage in the transformation process?  Why you propose to use continuous improvement?  What are the steps?  A long and hard thinking process is required to answer these questions in a simple way.  Refine your thoughts, do not use too many words, do not overthink.  Be honest and talk from your heart without fancy words or excuses, just the truth.

You are not ready to communicate this idea until you can say it in simple words.  

Keep it simple, all of the processes, language, structures, and formats.

Simple language is easier for the reader or receiver.  For instance, try to avoid the use of technical words unless it is necessary.  The same rule goes for industry jargon.  For example, in continuous improvement, we use many Japanese terms like kaizen.  Depending on the current culture, you should use generally accepted American words as a substitute.  In our previous example, you can use continuous improvement or rapid improvement events instead of kaizen.

While teaching new tools, use simple structures.  Further, give examples of things related to their work.  Things are complicated enough as it is, keep it simple.  Processes that are easy to understand have more probability of sustainability.  It is much easier to execute simple instructions than complicated words.  


Trying to explain something complex is often a humbling experience.  It makes you realize how much you don’t know.  Therefore, it forces you to break the subject into smaller pieces and understand each one of them.  When you think you know the process well enough, try to explain it with simple words. Would your five years old self understand?  If the answer is no, then keep refining your thoughts, keep improving your pitch.  

Simplicity avoids confusion, and processes are easier to execute consistently.  Don’t complicate it, keep it simple. 

Cultural transformation, lean thinking & people’s development

Achieve the cultural transformation from traditional to continuous improvement using lean thinking

One of the key elements for a successful cultural transformation from traditional to lean or continuous improvement is to change behaviors and beliefs.  The challenge is huge, in part because those behaviors and beliefs have been part of the company for a long time.  

The cultural transformation from traditional to lean

The company culture is the set of shared attitudes and practices that characterize an organization. Daily activities like decision making are influenced by the culture.  Further, the way people act, the values they shared, and how they respond to certain situations.  Also, it includes how people interact with each other and the work environment.  Things like the company vision, mission, and goals are the face of the culture.

In other words, culture determines or influences everything that happens in the business.  Therefore, to change practices it is necessary to transform the way people think and act.  The face of the company, the vision, mission, and goals have to reflect those new ways.  For instance, the shared values and leadership styles should mirror the new beliefs.  Lean thinking is what will drive those new behaviors.

Achieve cultural transformation using lean thinking 

The shift from traditional to continuous improvement or lean is one of the most challenging things during the cultural transformation.  Put simply, it is easier to change processes than people’s minds.  However, the only way to achieve the change is by adopting a new way to think and act.

People will learn new ways to approach the same problems and situations.  The first change is to learn how to identify value from the customer lenses.  The idea of thinking about how every action can affect the customer is mind blowing for many people.  However, once they know why, it makes sense.  The business goal is to provide the customer with the highest quality, in the shortest amount of time and at the lowest possible cost.  Then, focusing our actions on quality, cost, and delivery is the right way to conduct business.

The focus of the entire transformation is the people, your team.  A fundamental part is to care more about people’s motivations, viewpoints, and how to develop their skills.  Some of those skills include problem-solving, how to identify non-value-add steps, and the use of PDCA for improvements.  When you take care of your team, they take care of your customers.  And by doing that, your business performance improves.

People’s Development is fundamental

One of the most important steps in the cultural transformation roadmap is to design the programs for the people’s development.  Respect for humanity is at the core of lean thinking.  For that reason, this part of the transformation is fundamental for its success. 

Using a hands-on approach, the leaders will teach their teams how to use lean thinking.  Use every learning opportunity to develop new skills.  As a result, a team member would learn ways to solve problems and improve their work.  One step at a time, leaders will guide their groups to reach their potential.  They do that by giving them a purpose and showing how their work is tied to the company’s success.  Also, by providing performance and development plans to help them grow.  

Start with Why

Do you want to start your transformation journey with the right foot?  Then, start explaining why.  People need to know the reasons for such an undertaking.  Be honest, and clear about the motives and expectations.  Also, explain what is in it for them?  When you explain the new behaviors and way to do things, many will look at you with skepticism.  But also, many more will feel hope and will give it a try.  Make that try counts do what you say you would.  As a business owner or top leader, your job is to model those behaviors and show the new ways to do business.