Shift Your Continuous Improvement Program Into Overdrive

Megan BurnsContinuous Improvement, Employees, Leadership, Managing, Operations, Quality, Six Sigma, World-class


Is your continuous improvement (CI) program achieving all you want from it? Ever wondered or wished that it would be more productive? You’re not alone, recent studies have shown that approximately 60 percent of executives are disappointed with the results of their continuous improvement initiatives.

That’s pretty dismal.

The good news? You don’t have to be one of the 60 percent! It will take some effort and you will have to think about parts of your business you may not have considered before. In the end though, your organization can become the one others are benchmarking, your employees are bringing you ideas to improve the operation, and people are asking when they can get trained. Sound good? To help you make the transition, here are five strategies to help you gain more traction from your continuous improvement program.

1. Tie Your CI Program to Your Business Strategy This sounds obvious, but companies don’t do it. All too often their CI program is just another program that is running in the organization and gets little attention except to reduce scrap rates or address customer quality issues. That’s not enough to leapfrog your competition. Instead, the executive team needs to decide why the CI program is important. Where is the business going strategically? How will the CI program help you get there? Make sure you word it in terms that your frontline employees care about. If you’ve tried other initiatives, how is this one different? How will you know if you’re making progress? By answering these questions, it should be clear how the CI program is an integral part of the business strategy and get people aligned with it.

2. Clearly Define People’s Roles & Accountabilities This is more than simply telling someone that they are a project sponsor or that as a part of their annual performance appraisal, they must attend some training course. This involved defining what a given role is (sponsor, champion, project leader, etc). What are the expectations in terms of behaviors, not just results. Is there a group that is guiding the CI initiative? A board or committee? What is the purpose of that group? Is it just keeping the program aligned with the business strategy or do they evaluate project performance? Are they holding people accountable or is that done based on the organizational structure?

Speaking of accountability, how are people going to be held accountable and for what? Is it integrated with your employee performance management tools? How will you acknowledge success?

3. Work on Real, Meaningful Projects I know I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, “No expensive science projects!” If you want to really gain some traction with your CI program, you have to work projects that are going to have an impact on your business. Don’t just assign people to projects for the sake of working a project. Nor should you run a project to try to justify a decision that has already been made. That’s just manipulating the tools and the data and most people can see through that. Instead, tackle those projects that have been plaguing you and would make a significant impact to you business.

4. Phrase it so People Care I have seen organizations launch CI programs and the wording is such that either people don’t care or they immediately resist the program. For example, saying that this CI program will help us become “more globally competitive” may be meaningful in the boardroom, but not so much in the break room. Similarly, stating that an initiative will help “cut labor costs” generally does not make your workforce feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Instead, take some time to decide, what does it mean to be globally competitive, why is that good for your employees, what does it look like, what do globally competitive companies do that you’re currently not? Remember, it’s not that people are against you, they are just for themselves. So make sure you are communicating in terms they care about.

5. Communicate! Most people who think they are communicating, are not. Instead, they are telling, lecturing, or dictating. Communication looks at both the message you are sending and how the other person received your message. If you followed through the first four steps we outlines, this step should be pretty easy. Here you need to decide how you are going to communicate, what media is appropriate for the message. What are your key talking points that everyone should be sharing? What is everyone’s role in communicating this message? What is the frequency of your communication so you can keep your CI program in front of the organization? Then as you communicate, check, get some feedback on how people interpreted your message and make any necessary adjustments.

Taking some time upfront to work on these five steps will payoff in dividends for your organization. Then you can count yourself as one of the few who are happy with their CI program results.