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The Importance of the Continuous Improvement Cycle: Laying the Foundation for Change

By:  Scott Jessup

Once the decision is made to embrace continuous improvement (CI) and begin to rally the troops in support of implementing a continuous improvement cycle, it’s critical to take small steps. Remember, continuous improvement is the on-going effort to improve products, services and processes by making small, incremental improvements within a business. It’s based on the concept that small changes will add up to major improvements over time.

What some management teams may forget is that CI is not just about making specific, tactical changes and improvements to processes and systems. It’s equally about changing organizational culture to focus on opportunities for improvement rather than problems. It’s easy for employees at all levels to get frustrated by the resistance that may be encountered along the way as process and worker efficiency comes under scrutiny and some employees start to feel uneasy about change. Tensions and resistance will ease when the emphasis is put on the positive aspects of change and employees begin to see – and feel – improvements. 

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

We need to start with laying the foundation for change – four essential elements that will help successfully launch the continuous improvement cycle: 

Leadership, not lip service There is nothing as critical to the success of continuous improvement as leadership buy-in. Studies have shown that leadership team support is the number one factor for the success of a CI program. Engaged leadership not only establishes the importance of implementing and maintaining a continuous improvement cycle, it sets an example for how the rest of the workforce should respond and engage. 

It is not enough for management to simply issue a positive statement about continuous improvement at the start of the program and then leaving the ongoing effort to CI teams and individual workers. The result would be a fragmented program with isolated results and no real, demonstrable operational improvements. Without adequate, proactive management support for continuous improvement, any CI program is doomed to failure.

Address the root cause of problems, not just their results It’s hard to fix problems when employees have to spend inordinate amounts of time putting out the fires those problems cause. As inefficiencies beget more inefficiencies, workers end up simply working harder, not smarter. It’s important to have CI teams focus on eliminating the root causes of problems to break the inefficiency cycle and begin to see real improvement.

The perpetual motion of change Continuous improvement is not a one-time, set-it-and-forget-it program. It requires consistent, on-going, focused effort to weed out inefficiencies, streamline processes, and reduce waste. This kind of relentless and unwavering focus on the continuous improvement cycle is crucial for implementing and sustaining improvements across the enterprise -- improvements that will have a significant, long-term impact on profitability and growth.

Long-term vision While it may be easier for upper management to adopt a long-term approach to business strategy and continuous improvement, it can hard for plant floor workers to think in those terms. Plant managers can be distracted by the very real day-to-day operational necessities that keep the production lines humming, especially if their performance evaluations are based on meeting monthly or quarterly goals.  Yet for CI to be truly effective, it’s vital to adopt and encourage long-term vision and prioritize improvements that will have a major impact over the long term.

Once again, management has to establish priorities and consistently support the CI program so employees throughout the corporate hierarchy embrace continuous improvement and broaden their vision beyond the next quarter. It’s important for everyone to understand that a quarterly dip in performance can be tolerated if it means that in the long term the company will be in a better position, both financially and in its ability to deliver outstanding products and services to its customers.

With the foundation in place to set the continuous improvement cycle in motion, management can turn its attention to creating and sustaining a culture of change across the enterprise.