Key Ingredients For Implementing a Successful Continuous Improvement Effort

Greg Flickinger and Ugo Mgbike, of Snyder's-Lance, talk about how to make continuous improvement part of the fabric of your company's culture – not the program of the month.

By Greg Flickinger and Ugo Mgbike, Snyder's-Lance

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For decades, organizations have formalized efforts around Continuous Improvement (CI). Many have spent significant time and effort customizing and re-developing tools and processes that already exist. Programs are often branded with a catchy name to reinforce company ownership followed by pushing the program into the organization with an expectation that people will embrace it and make it their own.

As is typically the case in any change effort, a small fraction of people jump on board believing the concept makes perfect sense, while the masses resist. The harder the organization pushes, the more resistance will be created. Over time, more people will slowly come on board, but many will continue to passively resist. With excessive effort, the program can be pressed into generating savings, but without an intentionally planned cultural change effort, the organization complies only until the pressure is released -- allowing the passive resistors to resume their default work style.

As a result, sustaining improvement is difficult and the effort is at risk of becoming an activity-based program as opposed to a performance-based culture. According to Reut Schwartz-Hebron, founder of the Key Change Institute, "Only 10 percent of the people can adopt lasting new ways of thinking without support and effort focused upon enabling the change process."

Some organizations hire CI professionals or consulting groups to deploy to opportunity areas with the intent of leveraging CI tools to extract value. These efforts often return immediate performance and cash savings, but struggle to sustain these improvements over time. Failure to engage the workforce in shared ownership hinders the adoption of the changes as an owned part of the culture. The gains often will fail to mature and will remain as one-off and specific. Management of the process, which creates compliance, only sustains for a finite period of time before the changes fade at the hands of the large group of resistors, most of whom are passive.

The key to successfully implementing a CI effort is to make it a component of the fabric of the culture. It must become "the way we do our work" as opposed to an organizational program. The approach must be centered upon not just telling or showing, but including and engaging the workforce in the overall effort.

People must be allowed to follow the philosophy and process, but be able to make it their own. Sustained success is often found when CI is approached as a cultural change effort, where the focus is on the people and the CI tools being used as the vehicle to support culture change. Performance becomes an outcome of the effort, not the focus. This concept can be hard for many to grasp and even more difficult to execute. This is especially true when immediate bottom-line results are demanded.

Why CI efforts fail

Let's look at the characteristics that generate an unsustainable CI effort, one that fails to become part of the culture. Many organizations and leaders fall into these traps as good intentions generate contrary and unintended consequences.

Success in application transcends what is generally communicated in the academic approach. CI will become an activity-based program as opposed to a culture when:

  • The process is rigid and must be followed to the letter. Deviation, customization and personalization are not accepted.
  • Extensive paperwork is required. Forms must be filled out completely and posted in a library or database with for others to access.
  • A few highly trained and knowledgeable experts execute the projects, pulling from local knowledge to solve the issues and gain performance.
  • Goals are established requiring a predetermined number of CI tools to be used or a percentage increase in tool use.

The real power behind CI is providing the workforce more effective ways to do their work. Highly structured and well documented processes are clearly desirable, but often fail in execution. The workforce is most adaptable to the new ways of thinking when they are given a level of freedom within a framework.

It is about the philosophy and approach, not the specific task. Often, the well-educated and well-intentioned CI leader's need to be "right" gets in the way of being "effective." If one wants to gain the full value of not only improving but sustaining business performance, the focus must be centered on effectiveness. This means it is about the people and not simply the process or tool.

Early in my career, our plant hosted a routine visit of by one of our company vice presidents. The plant was in the midst of making some very impressive incremental performance gains against the backdrop of strong sustained performance. The technicians (hourly employees) were presenting the performance outcomes they and their teams of peers had achieved. The workforce was fully vested, owning the CI tool use and commensurate results. Many of the CI processes were becoming ingrained in the culture and were becoming the way the teams did their work.

At the conclusion of one of the presentations, the vice president pointed out the tool was not used properly because the standard form was not filled out. Once the form was completed, it would then be considered effective use of the tool. Here was a team that had fully changed not only the way they approached the opportunity, but actually changed the way they thought about solving the situation by making lasting and sustained systemic improvements. But they were deflated by being instructed that the activity was more important than the result. An opportunity was lost to celebrate accomplishments and recognize those who were willing to change, thereby reinforcing the new cultural norm.

There is clearly a place for using structured and regimented process, especially in the early stages of learning and adoption. For instance, as one begins to develop a culture of basic root cause problem-solving using Why-Why or Five Why, people gain educational value on the process by walking through structured forms. At first, the teams may require facilitation and guidance. As time proceeds, teams will begin to leverage the form and facilitate themselves.

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