Creating a Continuous Improvement Culture

If you are reading this, you are ready for change. In fact, you probably need it.

Probably you’re in charge of something: it might a team, a division, or even an entire company. Whatever you lead, it needs improvement. Whether you need to boost sales (and profits), increase customer or employee satisfaction, defend yourself from the threats of competition, or anything else, you’re in the right place.

This is a blog about change. Better than change, it’s a blog about improvement. And better still, it’s about building a machine that is always improving itself over time.

I’m here writing this because, several years ago, I found myself in a pinch. The manufacturing operation I was running was acquired by owners who demanded improvement–or else. I loved my organization, but it was handicapped by its outdated technology, under-qualified and under-motivated staff, and management who were ill-prepared to lead this new charge. The stakes were high, and the climb was steep.

The challenge was to get this organization whipped into shape, to prepare it for big changes. Even before that, I had to show everyone how change was necessary for our very survival. But a lot of what we tried worked, and over time we’ve honed our methods and teachings to a razor’s edge. The organization I led became one of the top-producing subsidiaries of a global corporate entity, and a company in the top 5% of profitability in our sector. I’d call that a success!

In two words, we call our philosophy, our structure, our mindset, and our daily habits continuous improvement.

If you Google “continuous improvement,” you get a lot of hits. And they cover a lot of different angles on the subject; it seems that there are as many forms and applications of continuous improvement as there are stars in the sky. It means different things to different people; one might think “Kaizen” or “lean” or “just-in-time,” or any of a dozen buzzwords that gradually creep into the executive’s vocabulary. I have my own angle, my own way of skinning this cat, as will you; my advice is to expose yourself to as much “continuous improvement” discussion as possible so that you’ll be able to think up something custom for yourself.

I should point out that we are not discussing new or “original” concepts here. There is nothing new under the sun; everything here came from somewhere else. What is different about me and my work is the particular way I’ve cherry-picked ideas, combined them, and implemented them successfully. You’ll see references to the work of others; you’ll also hear about the practices I’ve used and how they worked in my case. As I did before you, keep yourself reading, ask questions, and cherry-pick the best parts.

Next, a word of caution. Continuous improvement is a permanent decision. It’s not a seminar or weekend workshop where, when you get to some destination, you’re done. No, no, no. You never stop improving–that’s the point. And it’s a reflexive ideology: it applies to itself. You have to improve the continuous improvement system as well. To feed that monster, you have to commit yourself to certain habits, among them a commitment of time and thought, a willingness to accept criticisms and failures, and a drive to keep learning.

Continuous improvement is a lifelong journey, and it will take some twists and turns. If it seems jarring or strange sometimes, that’s good! As Einstein once remarked, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Lastly, a word of orientation. There are two elements of CI (as we will henceforth abbreviate it): culture and tools. Just about everything we discuss here falls into one of those two categories. However, unlike many CI authorities before me, I tremendously value the culture and will emphasize it accordingly. The tools are practical, useful, genius even, but they are lifeless without human touch, and we’d all do well to remember that.


Oh, and why “CI Helix,” you ask?

A helix is a curved line that appears to move upward, like an infinite staircase. The double helix is two such lines opposite one another, and that’s the shape of our most important, most intelligent molecule: DNA. DNA is the complete set of instructions that guide the development and function of all known living beings. There is no more appropriate an image than the double helix for visualizing Continuous Improvement Culture: progressive, connected, intertwined elements that build upwards upon one another and provide structure for a successful, sustainable business.

So let’s design one!


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