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Building a Continuous Improvement Organization

Building a Continuous Improvement Organization

Hawthorne Consulting


The yardstick for measuring organizational success is changing at an exponential rate. What used to pass for outstanding service, quality, or efficiency is now barely the ante to get into the game. Customer expectations continue to rise and successful organizations must figure out how to meet, and frequently exceed, those expectations. The good old days of “good, fast or cheap, pick any two” are long gone.

In order to compete, organizations must transition from daily fire fighting to a system of continuous improvement in all functional areas. This must be a long term commitment that is led, implemented and actively supported from the highest levels of the organization.

Frequently, improvement initiatives such as; Lean Manufacturing, Six Sigma, Theory of Constraints, etc. are started without a full understanding of the magnitude of change required to achieve and maintain the desired results. These are not spot improvement tools that can be applied to isolated silos of the organization. They are fundamental changes in the way the organization is structured, managed, measured and operated.

Top managers recognize the need for organizational change and desire the promised bottom line impact from these improvement efforts. What they often don’t fully consider is the microscope they live under, where the workforce listens to their words while carefully scrutinizing their actions. If the leadership is not prepared to live in both word and deed the values espoused in the company posters and policies, they certainly shouldn’t expect sincere participation from anyone else.

The organizations expectations of individuals are communicated through the hundreds, if not thousands, of interactions that take place every day. The direct interactions between leadership and the workforce, the indirect actions of the organization toward all employees and the observed interactions between supervision and management all serve to communicate “this is how we expect people to behave around here”.


Some of these communications are in the form of metrics, what we measure and what we reinforce. Metrics also communicate expectations and drive individual behaviors in an organization. The metrics (scores) you give people must have four characteristics to be worthwhile:

1. Individuals must be able to have an impact on the score.
2. The score must have meaning; employees must “care” about it.
3. The score must be timely.
4. The score must have credibility.

Most employees want to be part of something good, successful and meaningful, and understandably, they will do the things that get recognized, rewarded or reinforced.

A reward is something a person desires, given as a result of an action on their part, and usually cost money.
Reinforcement is a coaching activity increasing the likelihood of an action being repeated, and usually costs little or nothing.

Coaching is letting people know that what they do matters to someone.

What does this have to do with creating a continuous improvement organization? Can’t we just get some Six Sigma Black Belts and whip this place into shape? Or, how about if we Value Stream Map our processes and then fix them to perfection?

Focusing on the results from these improvement systems, without acknowledging the structural changes required to achieve and maintain them is akin to wanting a baby, but hoping to avoid pregnancy and labor. When it comes to implementing an improvement culture, adoption is not an option.

The good news is that most people are willing to meet clearly communicated, properly justified and consistent expectations. The bad news is that many expectations are not clearly communicated, properly justified or consistent with what the organization truly needs.

The Solution:
1. Learn the organizational changes necessitated by the improvement philosophy you are considering.
2. Decide if you and your leadership team can adapt to these changes.
  a. If yes, go forward.
    • Convert or get rid of the foot draggers and subtle saboteurs.
    • Reinforce the contributors.
  b. If not, you’ll have to figure out how you can get the better results you need, without really changing anything.

The leadership then needs to identify the “train we are hitching our cars to” and let the workforce, from top to bottom, know:
1. This is the train!!
2. You have choices
   a. Climb on and help drive.
   b. Stand and watch as it leaves the station.
   c. Stand on the tracks and watch it come.

Once the message is firmly entrenched:

1. Start the learning and training at the top, with managers and supervisors; leave everyone else alone, for now.
2. Have your leadership lead.
   a. Communication events
   b. Improvement events
   c. Training activities
3. Use outside resources, until you don’t need them anymore.
   a. Use their expertise to shorten your learning curve.
   b. Have a plan to stop using them ASAP.
     i. Create internal resources
     ii. Provide your resources with clear expectations
3. Communicate, communicate, communicate.
   a. Publicize progress
   b. Celebrate successes
   c. Recognize participation
   d. Measure and post progress toward goals

As in any significant change effort, this is easier to discuss than do. The point is, plot the course, fully understand the rocks, reefs and weather you will be encountering, and be sure you are prepared to lead and manage the crew so the journey is fruitful, and the port you arrive in is the one you set sail for. This is a long term commitment that must be led, implemented and actively supported from the highest levels of the organization.

This is a do-able process, success stories abound, as do tales of woe. The common theme among the successful is leadership; consistent, clear and directional leadership.

The changes on the horizon for American business will be uncomfortable for many; this does not make the changes any less necessary. Those who put off this process of self-examination and strategic change will find themselves playing catch-up in a game that seldom waits for slow learners.

Hawthorne is a training and consulting organization committed to enhancing the performance of organizations world wide. For more information go to www.hawthornecs.com or call us at 315-564-6908

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Tags: Continuous, OD, engagement, improvement, organizational, performance

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