Most businesses face ongoing pressure to improve their customer service or profitability. The competition never stands still. This means that if you are not improving, you are likely going backwards.

An organisation that has the ability to continuously improve its operating performance has a significant advantage over its competition. Kaizen is a process improvement concept often referred to by its Japanese name, which literally means ‘change for better’. Kaizen is applied widely in business as continuous improvement. However, because it’s a concept that focuses on process reengineering, it’s not the whole answer.

To achieve improved performance, it’s important to focus not only on the process itself, but on the way that process is managed. If you hope to have a culture that delivers continuous improvement, the management culture you have is far more important than the process itself. This is because the right continuous improvement culture will drive process improvement, but the opposite is not true. You can have great processes but not be able to succeed with them.

5 factors that can help you create a culture of continuous improvement

  1. Measure operational excellence.

    What does operational excellence look like in your organisation? Do you know how to measure it? Though ideas in a suggestion box format are handy, you are far more likely to see what needs to improve if you know what success looks like and are able to measure it. Generally, you should define success in terms of quality, cost and customer service.

    If you have already achieved operational excellence, it’s worth reviewing whether you should be managing your stakeholders’ expectations instead. Whatever situation you may be in, a culture of continuous improvement will give you a clear, measurable idea of what’s working and what’s not, and whether performance targets are being met.

  2. Get rid of blame.

    If there is a gap between where you want to be in your organisation and where you are now, people will get uncomfortable. One of the most deadening forces at work to stop continuous improvement is one where people are afraid of the gap between the goal and the current state.

    As a leader, you must eliminate this fear. After all, most operating problems are not an individual’s fault, but have likely arisen from a lack of foresight, poor communication, poor training, changing customer demands or changing competition.

    So, if your response to an operating problem is to counsel the person responsible, your business will put far more energy into shifting blame than it will to fixing the problem. ‘How can we fix it?’ will lose every time to ‘It wasn’t my fault’.

  3. Actively manage your process.

    An operating problem will become far more disruptive and costly if it finds you rather than you find it. It’s important for you to actively manage your processes and identify potential issues as a routine activity.

    Some business professionals describe this process as gemba, or ‘go to the real place’. As with Kaizen, practitioners use gemba to focus on process improvement, regularly examining processes to see if they can be made better. This is a good strategy, provided it fits into a management model that drives active management.

  4. Use a management operating system (MOS).

    A management operating system (MOS) typically refers to the management tools of forecasting, planning, scheduling, executing and reviewing. The power of the MOS is the behavioural model it supports. Adopting the lean behaviours of ‘Plan, Do, Check, Act’ as a normal everyday practice in your business will deliver a powerful culture focused on operational excellence and improvement, particularly among front-line managers and team leaders.

  5. Train your front-line managers.

    A great front-line manager or team leader knows how to achieve their ultimate goal through a combination of the right people, processes and leadership.

    So, train your front-line managers to be proactive and lead with confidence, taking risks where necessary. A leader who offers suggestions about what to do to fix any gaps in performance and outcomes has a valuable skill that should be nurtured, rewarded and developed.