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Creating a Culture of Continuous Improvement in the Workplace

A value originally dubbed “Kaizen” by the Japanese, continuous improvement is an ongoing practice of improving products, processes and practices. In short, an organization never declares its policies and strategies fixed; instead, it dynamically reviews and adapts to ensure the product it produces and the steps taken to create and deliver it are the highest quality and most efficient. Fostering a culture of continuous improvement is embracing the idea that nothing is ever “good enough.”

A culture of continuous improvement requires commitment from every individual in the workplace to embrace a dynamic culture, one where individuals and groups are constantly evaluating work and striving to improve.

How to Create a Continuous Improvement Culture

While implementing a continuous improvement culture in your workplace can depend on the culture of the organization and the industry it serves, fostering an environment of continuous improvement at any organization requires a culture change. Every employee must view the business and its practices through a new perspective. By taking these steps, you can begin to instill a continuous improvement culture in your workplace.

Secure Leadership Commitment

In a case study from 2014, Deloitte advises that each continuous improvement effort is governed by a leader, and that it may take years for leadership to understand and accept the process. Continuous improvement is aimed at long-term transformation. Leaders must understand and commit to pursuing the larger strategy to avoid waning attention or dedication to individual projects and initiatives.

Expertly Manage Change

Change can be difficult, and employees may resist adopting changes that are seen as optional initiatives or recommendations. To ensure the improvements identified are actually put into practice, change management must be a core component of the overall continuous improvement strategy. This includes establishing proper messaging and motivation, training and actively monitoring how adoption is progressing – and then, the change management expert must continue to follow up until adoption is complete.

Create Small, Manageable Changes

Challenging employees to achieve a lofty goal that takes months to reach may be more demotivating than inspiring. Instead, break larger goals into small, manageable goals that allow for quick achievements and offer opportunities to enforce that the organization is successful and progressing. These goals should also be actionable, not theoretical. For example, a goal of “improving quality” isn’t particularly measurable. However, the goals of creating a review process, establishing a training program and reducing errors by 5% can all be measured and achieved.

Employ the Plan-Do-Check-Act Method

According to Six Sigma Daily, the Plan-Do-Check-Act (PCDA) Method is a cyclical process that establishes a framework for companies to improve. Established in a linear framework that builds on previous steps, this method asks organizations to:

  1. Plan: In this phase, teams review current standards, brainstorm ideas for improvement, identify implementation for improvements, set goals and create a plan of action.
  2. Do: Teams implement the established plan, manage the actual process change, provide training, communicating the changes and monitor for issues.
  3. Check: Once the improvements are implemented, teams must then review the new standards and compare them to previous results as well as the original goals established.
  4. Act: Stakeholders review the data and decide if the change is permanent or needs to be adjusted further. 

Provide Feedback and Encourage Open Dialogue

At the outset, the overall strategy, mission statement, scope and expectations should be clearly and widely communicated to the organization. Then, the organization should routinely communicate progress to all employees. Consistent communication on progress also enforces continuous improvement as an integral priority to the business. Transparency encourages open communication. Similarly, employees should be encouraged to provide feedback, both through positive reception when they do raise issues, and by intentional environments, like group meetings and commitments aimed at garnering feedback. Asking for feedback is the best way to ensure it is provided.

At an individual level, consistent, structured feedback should be a regular part of the culture, as a natural mechanism for improvement. 

Inspire and Motivate Employees

Employees should be energized by a dynamic culture of continuous improvement. Encourage employees by celebrating milestones achieved, either by announcing them publicly or conveying them in a newsletter. Establish healthy rivalry by generating a competition for most improved or celebrating innovative ideas employees bring forward. Removing obstacles and encouraging creativity also motivate employees to thrive with autonomy.

Measure the Results

An essential component of a continuous culture is organizations measuring the right results. Metrics should make sense, relate to overall goals and connect to incentive plans. Metrics are a critical component of continuous improvement because they provide the data-driven insight organizations need to gauge progress and further analyze progress over time. This means results should be numeric, not based on subjective measures like “good” or “bad.”

Involve Everyone

Each and every employee should be connected to process improvement, encouraged to provide feedback, and held accountable for progress and change adoption. In some cases, this may even mean connecting incentives to change management.

How a Continuous Improvement Culture Benefits an Organization

Over time, organizations are likely to boost their competitive edge and enjoy advantages in the industry if the improvements add value. Specifically, some key benefits to continuous improvement culture include the following.

Higher Engagement & Morale

Not only can the actual improvements make employees work life better, but the projects that accompany continuous improvement may provide opportunities for employees to take on new challenges and impact their jobs in tangible ways. Since continuous improvement requires that employees at any level are empowered to speak up when processes don’t make sense, employees can feel more heard and valued.

Lower Turnover

Employees who are actively improving an organization and providing input into its strategy and execution may feel greater ownership and investment in a company, and in turn, can be less likely to leave. For organizations, reduced turnover can means reduced severance, recruiting, hiring and training costs, and the retention of a more experienced workforce.

Higher Motivation

Challenging employees to think critically about processes, and to observe, analyze and implement improvements based on those results may motivate them simply because they possess more control over their role and are expected to do more than just execute rote tasks.

Increased Productivity

With its emphasis on process improvement, a culture that encourages continuous improvement can undertake initiatives to reduce inefficiencies in process, and in eliminating superfluous steps, may boost productivity. Streamlining processes and environments regularly helps to increase productivity as well.

Improved Quality

A critical component of process improvement is establishing a system for ensuring quality. Not only can streamlining processes reduces the risks like waste or errors that can damage quality, but an established system to verify quality helps monitor outputs regularly to ensure the best possible quality.

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