10 Fundamentals of Continuous Improvement

Continuous improvementWhen continuous improvement is a fundamental part of our company culture, our business gets better every day and will soon out-run and out-perform the competition.  Over 100 years ago, Henry Ford wrote:

The competitor to be feared is the one who never bothers about you at all, but goes on making his own business better all the time.

Creating a culture of continuous improvement is difficult.  This is especially true for currently profitable and high performing organizations who are content and follow the old adage of “it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Ten fundamentals to consider when trying to become a continuous improvement organization.

  1. As a leader, it is our job to create and reinforce a culture of excellent performance, continuous improvement and accountability. As a Vice President of Toyota has been quoted:

Our number one concern is how to build our people and how to build a culture of continuous improvement.


  1. Continuous improvement starts with each one of us. Each of us can improve many aspects of our job.   As remarked in the book, Two Second Lean, we all need to be improving some aspect of our job performance at all times.  As leaders, we need to lead by example.  Our continuous improvements should include such seemingly mundane activities as how we organize our days, how we run our meetings, how we listen to our team, or how we respond to a question.


  1. We need to be focused on small improvements today, tomorrow and every day. Continuous improvement never stops.  To paraphrase the authors, Chip and Dan Heath:


Breakthrough improvements are rarely solved with commensurately big initiatives.  Instead, they are most often solved by a sequence of small improvements.


  1. Before undertaking a continuous improvement initiative, we need to think big picture. First, we need to determine beforehand whether we are trying to improve something that needs to be improved.  Sometimes the best improvement comes from simply eliminating a non-value added task.  Once we have determined that an improvement initiative is justified, we need to focus on the most important area to improve: the constraint or bottleneck in the process.


  1. When we begin a continuous improvement initiative, we must involve those who will be doing the work. They are the ones closest to the job and their insight and then their buy-in are critical to the success of the initiative.  As Adam Farber, a Lean consultant, has written:


A change initiative can go wrong when the fix is determined by the experts and then rolled out to the whole system. This ignores people and their potential for contribution and engagement.


  1. Continuous improvement demands humility. First, we need to have the humility (as above) to realize that the people doing the work are the true experts.  Second, we need to have the humility to realize that not all of our initiatives and improvements and experiments will work out.


  1. Nonetheless, we need to run experiments. As I have written before, we need to Experiment … A Little.  Small experiments allow us to try out our continuous improvement ideas and see whether what works in theory actually works in practice.


  1. We need to factually evaluate the results of our experiments and all improvement initiatives to ensure that they work in reality. This involves doing a sober, statistical analysis of the improvement.  A gut feeling or a high profile anecdote are not reliable indicators of whether an improvement is successful or not.


  1. We need to be flexible and open to change if our improvements and experiments do not work out.   We would do well to follow the advice of famed economist, John Maynard Keynes, when he was challenged for changing his position on an issue:


When my information changes, I change my mind.  What do you do?


  1. As leaders, we need to be balanced in our pursuit of continuous improvement. First, we must be persistent in continuing to look for ways to make it better.  At the same time, we need not to confuse or overwhelm our teams.  We need to provide the focus on the improvement initiatives underway while giving the team enough time to complete and embed any improvements in the organization.  Having more than one or two improvement initiatives for any person or group to work on is just too many.


By following these 10 fundamentals on continuous improvement, we can become that competitor that everyone in our industry fears.



About David Shedd

David has been a President - CEO - COO of an up to $350M group of manufacturing, distribution, specialty retail and services companies, having led 22 different businesses from turnarounds to start-ups to fast growth companies.
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