Continuous Improvement (CI) is a term that is used in many ways across many businesses, and often mistakenly used as a generic term for different approaches to improving an organisation's performance. As a result, it often refers to activities which are project-based and transient in nature.
Mindset, Environment and Capability
True Continuous Improvement is the opposite of this: it is the sustainable creation of an improvement capability across the whole organisation which is used by all staff at all levels and in all roles to constantly drive performance towards a theoretical ‘ideal state’.
Proponents of CI know that perfection is an unachievable goal but nonetheless strive every day to take another step towards it. Crucially, they understand that CI requires every previous step forward to be sustained and embedded.
Gains in CI can be achieved either through a series of small incremental improvements which accumulate over time to produce a significant overall difference (often called the ‘science of marginal gains’) or by a smaller number of more significant “breakthrough” changes. A good CI culture will generate both of these.
The difference from “project-based improvement” is the origin of the changes: CI involves every individual in the organisation understanding that continually improving the way they work is a fundamental requirement of their role, and having the skills and (crucially) the environment to bring those changes to fruition.
Organisations that attempt to implement CI often fall at the first hurdle by misunderstanding the CI mindset. Building CI is absolutely not about implementing a suggestion scheme. Suggestion schemes are about ideas – but CI does not start with ideas, it starts with problems.
By understanding the problems that prevent us from achieving perfection, we can deploy our resources in a focused way to tackle those problems and create real and sustainable improvements. Ideas can be valuable but can also be unfocused and can be ‘solutions looking for problems’. The table below contrasts a suggestion scheme mindset with that of a true CI culture.
|A suggestion scheme mindset.|
|Has anyone got any good ideas?|
|Lots of ideas are generated, in fact…|
|…too many ideas are generated|
|We cannot implement all of these ideas|
|Which ones are good ones?|
|Which ones will have the most impact?|
|The rest will have to wait|
|(In fact the rest never get done)|
|Most people who put forward ideas are demotivated and stop offering new ones|
|Management are overloaded with the effort of managing the idea pipeline|
|Improvement feels like an extra burden on top of the day job|
|Despite all best intentions, improvement stalls and in 3-18 months has disappeared|
|A Continuous Improvement mindset.|
|What is our purpose? How do we create real value?|
|What KPIs should we use to show the value we add (and the gaps to perfection)|
|What is stopping us achieving our goals?|
|Our analysis reveals problems to solve|
|Choose a small number of problems – no more than 3-5 – so we can focus on getting them properly resolved|
|Engage all of our staff in problem solving. Give them all time, skills and resources.|
|Create an environment in which they can be successful|
|Implement our small number of solutions rapidly to get the benefits|
|Show the improvement – in our KPIs. If no improvement, the problem is not solved – go back and look again|
|Incorporate management of our small improvement set into our BAU management disciplines: meetings, reports – CI is “BAU” not a project|
|Everyone understands that improvement is expected of them all the time. So once we have solved the first 3-5 problems we move to the next.|
|Our culture moves from “justification of what we do” to “challenging what we do” – we are never satisfied|
After mindset, the next most important factor for sustainable CI is environment. Organisational rules and norms often form natural, and impenetrable, barriers to the development of CI in an organisation. Efforts to kick-start improvement often fail because the environment in which it is being attempted is not conducive to success.
The table below gives examples of environmental factors that can derail well-meaning attempts at CI.
|The change process is too bureaucratic, requiring multiple sign-offs||Small changes are slow, overload the system or become uneconomical because of the approval overhead||Fit-for-purpose governance (tiered appropriately) including “just do it” changes|
|Every improvement must be individually quantified, recorded and realized||Benefit swamped by cost and time of tracking and reporting||Manage each function by its high level KPIs and outcomes, which are expected to continuously improve|
|Leaders do not champion and drive CI mindset||Not important to my boss = not important to me. CI dies||Leaders at all levels actively role model CI, in their own work, their forums and their objectives. Every leader runs problem solving activities themselves|
|There is no budget for making small changes||Problems cannot be solved for want of minor investment (time or money)||Small change budget available and managers empowered to draw down if they can evidence outcomes|
|CI is not planned into the roles and time schedules of staff||CI happens sporadically but stops when the business comes under pressure and does not restart||CI should be planned into the role profiles and time schedules of all staff at all levels - forever|
|There is not enough time in the day for CI||CI happens sporadically or is very slow resulting in a loss of momentum||Focus initial capacity on improving time management routines to create more time for CI. Ensure CI is seen as everybody’s role|
The first step in setting up CI is to understand the barriers that must be overcome and the enablers that must be put in place to overcome them, focusing particularly on the difficult cultural and structural challenges such as those outlined above.
The final key component is capability. As CI is the responsibility of all, all must have the knowledge and skillset to identify and tackle the problems in their working world. This involves an investment in training, but more importantly in coaching as real-life problems begin to be tackled.
Identifying and resolving true root causes is difficult in the early stages, particularly for people who have become used to the ‘way we do things around here’ and so have come to accept as the norm practices which are in truth preventing progress towards the goal. A support structure of knowledge, training and coaching is essential, not just at the outset but on an ongoing basis to maintain (and continuously improve) CI capability across the organisation.
Done well, CI can be a source of huge performance improvement and even competitive advantage.
Gobeyond Partners has seen a sustainable CI culture in a division of a large financial services organisation deliver 10% capacity creation year-on-year for three years in succession, demonstrating what is possible when CI is approached in the right way.
Learn more about how we create environments where people can perform at their best, delivering ongoing value to customers,