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Continuous improvement efforts can only succeed when they become part of an organization’s culture – “the way we do things around here”. Here’s how to inspire a culture of continuous improvement in your organization.

Continuous improvement is an organization’s incremental and continuous efforts to improve processes and reduce waste. However, it can only succeed if it is integrated into the culture of the organization, where it becomes “the way we do things around here”. So, building an effective culture of continuous improvement (CI) is about much more than executing a cluster of improvement projects. While it’s a good place to start to reap some tangible rewards, more is required to create a culture of continuous improvement that embeds continuous improvement into the DNA of your organization.

Why is continuous improvement culture important?

Continuous improvement culture is important because it helps orchestrate effective leadership behavior, improvement methods, and enabling technologies into a purposeful force for iterative lean practices. Continuous improvement initiatives manifestly refine processes; upgrade the quality of finished goods; and boost productivity by creating greater output for the same inputs.

An integrated approach to inspire a culture of sustainable continuous improvement

Most organizations have knowledge of the various CI tools and principles, but they haven’t invested in the leadership commitment and framework required to establish a formal, systemic and sustainable management process of improvement. This missing organizational DNA is the glue that holds this great foundation of knowledge in place and enables people to continuously improve how they improve through a structured and integrated approach. Integrative improvement implements improvements holistically, which helps to establish a culture of continuous improvement throughout the organization.

The Toyota Production System example

Toyota’s organizational DNA and culture was created by Japanese ingenuity over a 70-year period, and it’s still going strong. The iconic car manufacturer follows a systemic approach to ensuring its philosophy of improvement is instilled in every member of the organization. That is why the Toyota Production System (TPS) has become one of the seminal case studies and foremost success stories of the continuous improvement process.

The TPS evolved into corporate production systems and more recently into digital operating systems (DOS), placing an increased focus on end-to-end visibility and the use of advanced technologies to gain a competitive advantage. However, there is still a lot to learn from Toyota’s success. Organizations transitioning to DOS should apply relevant CI practices and principles as the foundation of their digital transition to ensure maximum success.

Rather than copying and pasting culture, you must nurture and develop the right enabling patterns of behavior and cultural attributes of operational excellence that inspire a culture of sustainable continuous improvement in your organization. It is even more important to determine how the behaviors will be measured, so you need to define a meaningful set of metrics and indicators and build these into your performance management system.

Creating a culture of continuous improvement

Engaged leadership is arguably the most important determinant of success when it comes to inspiring a culture of sustainable continuous improvement. Organizations with leaders who invest in employee engagement and enabling technology, and consistently implement a regimented improvement methodology, succeed in cultural change toward a continuous improvement mindset.

Engaged leadership is arguably the most important determinant of success when it comes to inspiring a culture of sustainable continuous improvement.

As a start, here’s how to promote a culture of continuous improvement in your organization:

1. Lead by example

Show your support for a culture of continuous improvement by actively embracing lean management and best practice principles. Participate in continuous improvement initiatives openly and with gusto. Act on ideas and encourage others to do the same. Follow up on progress, discuss any setbacks and celebrate successes. Your people need to see you committed to a culture of continuous improvement before they can be expected to embrace such a culture themselves.

2. Communicate regularly

Create buy-in amongst your organization by talking about the benefits and importance of continuous improvement with everybody and at every opportunity. Regular, consistent communication serves the purpose of building confidence in and inspiring a culture of sustainable continuous improvement.

This is also the time to work on developing the right mindset among employees – one of the biggest challenges to building a culture of continuous improvement. A growth mindset where continuous learning is encouraged will drive long-term improvements. Consider conducting coaching and training sessions where you encourage new behaviors and build the required skills, such as effective problem-solving.

3. Ask for improvement ideas

Employees want to feel valued; they want to know that their opinions matter. Besides, your frontline employees are often best placed to identify process or systemic issues, so ask them for ideas for improvement and respond quickly to those ideas. But don’t only ask for ideas that directly affect the bottom line or meet a certain ROI threshold. By creating an environment where all improvement ideas are welcome, you’ll be encouraging innovation and accountability too.

4. Empower employees

Empower employees to make continuous improvement a part of their daily work. Encourage them, give them the continuous improvement tools, training and time required to look into their existing processes, so that they continuously identify opportunities for improvement. Once an improvement has been implemented, ask employees to document this improvement, which then becomes the standard going forward – until further improvement opportunities are identified.

5. Emphasize the importance of small, incremental improvements

Don’t make every improvement an event or a project as this is not a sustainable approach to creating a culture of continuous improvement. Rather encourage small, incremental improvements in all functions and at all levels of the organization. These types of improvements, known as Kaizen, are valuable and form the basis for a culture of sustainable continuous improvement because all employees become actively engaged in the improvement process.

6. Help share ideas and improvements

Share continuous improvement ideas and improvements via emails, newsletters, noticeboards, or any other available channel. The success of a continuous improvement culture hinges on its effective integration throughout the organization, where everyone is participating and taking responsibility for improvements. New ideas, line or team performance improvements, and PIP savings shared and easily accessible through visual management – for example on departmental digital dashboards – will bolster team participation, motivation and morale.

7. Celebrate the results achieved through continuous improvement

Celebrate successes by formally (and informally) recognizing the teams and individuals involved in the improvements. Ongoing recognition contributes to employee engagement, and motivates other teams and team members to improve their processes too. Create incentives with a reward and recognition program where all continuous improvement achievements are acknowledged.

8. Encourage participation by keeping the methodology simple

Organizations that succeed in building a continuous improvement culture do so because their methodology is simple. Make your improvement methodology simple enough so that everyone can participate and identify improvement opportunities.

Continuous improvement doesn’t play second fiddle in an organization that has mastered the cultural transformation. Why? Because every employee and leader across the entire organization knows that improvement is a key aspect of their job, and they approach it with the same weight and discipline as they would any other key performance indicator.