Where should be the focus of continuous improvement?

While transforming the company culture from traditional to continuous improvement, where should be the focus?

The most common errors while implementing continuous improvement is to focus on one small area. Do it in such a way, you are impacting only a portion of your business and not the entire enterprise. It is common to focus on the most visible parts. For example, start with areas with labor-intensive processes or warehousing, where most of the inventory resides. There is nothing wrong with using one problematic zone as the initial focal point. This way, you can earn a big win and use it to promote the initiative. But, focusing on one area should not a permanent strategy.

Focus on one area only affects the impact of the transformation

Your goal is to deliver to your customer the highest quality, at the lowest possible cost, in the shortest possible time.  To achieve this goal, you need to focus on your customer needs, ensure flow through the value stream, and create quality products or services.  You need the help of all the different components or teams to make this happen.

Focusing on one area, regardless of how problematic it may be, have the immediate effect of perpetuating the silos mentality.  You want to promote collaboration and to have people from different departments working together to achieve common goals.  Impacting only one department does not improve collaboration, not even when you have a cross-discipline group.

Focusing on anything less than the entire enterprise is missing the opportunity to achieve real changes in flow, quality, and costs that would position your business in a better place than most of your competitors.  Let’s face it everybody is happier when the company’s financials are better, and a big impact on those numbers only happens with the participation of all departments.

A narrow focus does not change the culture

If you want to have a permanent change in how things are done and create a new business model, you need to change the culture.  This type of change, by definition, has to impact everybody.  If you recall, Culture change, lean thinking & people’s development are some of the key elements for a successful lean implementation.

While focusing on one department only, most probably, you are picking a couple of tools or principles only, ignoring those that will help to develop your team.  Lean is not about tools; it is about the people.  Using new tools for process improvement to obtain quick results is not right.  You need to be in the look for people’s development, including your own.  When you focus on the team, provides the right environment to learn, explore new ways to do things, and communicate without hesitation, the improvements will come along.  

The team needs a common purpose

Knowing how their work connects to the value the company provides to the customer gives your employees clarity to connect their actions with the final results.  The new culture will create a team of problem-solvers, people that think differently and are motivated to create.      

Conclusion

Continuous improvement as a strategy to improve quality, lead-time, or minimize cost will give you additional benefits when it is implemented in the right way.  Other benefits include an increase in customer satisfaction and employee engagement and flexibility to face an unexpected crisis. Implementing this strategy across the house leads to better results.

Start by knowing your current status in detail.  What are those big-time issues that are affecting your bottom line the most?  Identify your business strengths and weaknesses.  Select three to five key objectives, establish a goal, and develop strategies to close the gap.  Choose them wisely, use your resources on the most pressing issues.  You can impact different areas like quality, cost, delivery, safety, or people development.  Break down the strategy into bite-sized plans.  Do not forget to include how to deploy the implementation throughout the entire business.

How to promote lean methods and tools? One of the leadership’s daily responsibilities to create a continuous improvement culture.

For a successful continuous improvement journey, there are five things that leaders have to do daily.

  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 already discuss the first four, and today is the turn for the last one, Promote & Insist on Lean Methods/Tools. One of the leaderships’ responsibilities is to model the new behaviors, like the use of continuous improvement methods and tools.

We know that communication within a CI culture has to be clear, consistent, and collaborative.  The promotion of lean methods and tools need to have the same characteristics.  Leadership has to visit the value-creating area (gemba) every day, and while they are there, use the principles and tools that are appropriate for what they see.  One skill that lean practitioners learn over time is to identify and act upon those learning opportunities that present themselves while visiting the work areas.  Take advantage of every opportunity you can.  

Lean thinking is for every day, every time, in every department, by everybody.  This statement is true even when things are not going as expected.  During those times that things got worse instead of improving is critical to insist on using the CI principles and tools.  Why?  Because that is the moment that the non-believers and road-blockers are waiting for, the time when things are unacceptable and you, back-up from the new culture behavior.

The integrated use of tools like 5s, visual management, gemba walks, huddle meetings, and problem-solving using PDCA is the perfect vehicle to convey the clarity of purpose, transparency, and collaboration needed for a successful implementation.  They also promote standardization, focus on shared goals, effective communication, visualization of current vs. standard, learning, motivation, and engagement.  The best way to promote lean thinking is to accomplish your responsibilities as a leader.  Learning, teaching, and modeling the new behavior day in and day out is how you will do it.  Nobody is perfect, admitting that you don’t know and that you make mistakes is a way to show respect to your team and be a good leader. Show what to do and how to do it. Telling without showing will not be enough.

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.  

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.

How to achieve the key elements for continuous improvement success

how to achieve the key elements for continuous improvement success

How do you achieve the key elements for the CI transformation? First, get familiar with the elements to change the company culture from traditional to continuous improvement successfully. Those elements are 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

How to achieve the key elements for the transformation?

As the owner or top leader of your organization, you are responsible for the transformation execution. Therefore, the implementation is something that you should not delegate. It is ok if you don’t know how to do it. If you are not familiar with it, find a responsible coach to guide you through this journey.

The key elements for the success of the continuous improvement transformation are fundamental to achieve a change in behaviors. The change starts with the leadership buy-in and support. They drive the conversion communicating the why, and how. Also, they modeled the new behaviors. Moreover, they learn and teach their team the new way to think and how to use the new tools.

What are your responsibilities?

But which are your responsibilities as a top leader? There are a few steps or actions that you would need to follow while reconstructing the culture. The following actions make the transformation possible.

  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

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