Striving for continuous improvement in SPD a marathon, not a sprint

May 25, 2021

When embracing continuous improvement (CI), it might be helpful to liken the process to the old tortoise and hare fable: slow and steady wins the race. After all, it’s not about racing across the proverbial finish line, but logging all the incremental steps along the way and viewing CI as an ongoing, sustainable journey to success. To help build a positive and effective CI culture with department-wide team support and involvement, consider following these key steps:

1. Tie CI efforts to strategy. When creating a CI strategy, managers and department leaders must ask, “what do we need to do?” and “how are we going to do it?” Through these questions/dialog surrounding them, CI projects can be identified that tie to the organization’s/department’s strategic goals.

2. Measure outcomes. Communication is critical to effective, sustainable CI efforts, and so is effective measurement and documentation of progress. Remember: What gets measured gets done. If performance metrics are not aligned with strategy and specific CI goals, team buy-in will suffer, along with results. Create a scorecard with high-level organizational objectives stated as key performance indicators. Then ensure metrics are aligned to strategy and CI is measured as part of departmental goals.

3. Gain leadership support and buy-in. If those in the facility’s executive positions embrace a CI strategy, departmental leaders will often follow suit; however, it’s not enough for those in the C-suite to just pledge their support; they must show their commitment by building CI expectations into operational goals and compensation objectives.  Also, remember that not all individuals who are influential and have the power to shape improvement and drive support hold official leadership titles.

4. Manage change. An organization’s/department’s leaders often have broad and repeated exposure to CI goals and methodologies before they decide to launch CI as part of strategy and operations—and they need to remember that team members are coming into the process later and may need some time to move out of their comfort zone and embrace new ways of doing things. Leveraging training and resources to manage change can help overcome any initial resistance sometimes seen in early stages of change. Proper training, communication and reinforcement can help workers welcome and embrace change instead of avoiding it.

5. Try just-in-time training. For the sake of speed, leaders may be tempted to train everyone on any new process or technique that will be introduced as part of the organization’s or department’s CI efforts; however, if employees won’t be applying this new knowledge on the job within days, weeks or months, retention will suffer, and retraining will likely be needed. “Just-in-time” training is best because it allows employees to immediately apply what they’ve learned. Holding a kaizen event is an effective way to have participants follow a learn-and-go-do cycle throughout a multi-day onsite workshop. Kaizen, a Japanese term for “continuous improvement,” is a methodology that serves as a building block for lean production methods.

  Trained and experienced employees should have opportunities to lead others in using the learned skills. Project leaders don’t have to come from engineering or operational excellence staff. Team leaders who work on the frontline can use the combination of process knowledge and CI training to lead their co-workers, while reinforcing their own skills.

6. Celebrate the incremental wins. CI takes hard work and requires team effort, so taking time to honor and celebrate successes throughout the journey is essential for keeping everyone motivated and focused for the long haul. Use metrics to show progress (consider posting performance charts/graphs throughout the work environment in areas where they are most visible). Seeing progress in that way will help reinforce the processes and goals. 

When these steps are built into the culture of the organization/department, the CI process will become stronger and more self-sustaining. When failure arises, it can often be traced to a lack of support and guidance from management regarding the CI goals and strategy. When they openly support and model the expectations, a positive domino effect typically occurs, and the collective team works to mirror the positive change.