Continuous Improvement Strategies to Build Your Desired Culture

What is involved in attaining successful improvement activities that will allow you to build and maintain your desired culture?

We all understand the need to measure results; particularly revenue, cost, productivity and budget. For the most part organizations are disciplined in developing strategies and action plans to improve these results. However, few organizations plan improvement activities based on their desired culture. Why? First, developing plans targeting financial and productivity targets can be much more tangible than culture related improvements. Second, writing a list of values is a relatively easy exercise; while implementing them takes significant effort.

We currently work with two companies that have, over time, come to truly understand what’s involved in building a desired culture. One is a very young company that has a definite advantage in building their work culture, while the other has established itself through generations of owners. The established company has had to be very realistic about the amount of change accomplished each year but have, essentially, followed the same types of improvement activities as the younger company in their pursuit of creating a new culture that matches their stated values.

Each company followed the same model to define their mission, vision, and values, and then developed their business practices, leadership practices, and employee behaviors to support each value.

Each company has values related to the customer, their people (team), business success (profitability, growth, …), and continuous improvement. They have a couple of slightly different values after those.

At the end of the first year they came into their planning process and had to challenge themselves on how well they actually developed and changed their culture. Although they each had a lot of successes, changing a culture, particularly an existing one, is challenging.

One of the interesting things that happened over the year was that each management team felt they owned the improvement process. They measured the results. They developed a set of improvement goals. They planned changes to improve the results. And, for the most part, they were responsible for implementing the changes. Although management teams have a huge role in improving business results and the culture, we had to remind each organization that the continuous improvement process doesn’t spring from only management.

When we get to the top of the model, the degree to which people throughout the organization are involved in coming up with the ideas, planning them and being involved in implementing those plans makes a huge difference in successfully attaining the desired business results or culture change. In order to get people involved in the improvement process, it becomes critical that one of the key leadership behaviors is to find ways that build trust throughout the organization and get people engaged in their work environment.

Just last week we had a debate in a leadership training session at a company trying to incorporate their values throughout their organization. The team was identifying all of the items that would likely need to improve or change if they were to truly live up to their stated values. As the exercise was finishing and they were going on break, some of the leaders were talking about getting together to plan changes. I asked them who would be involved in the process and they said it would be the management team. After the break we talked about how to bring people from across the organization into the discussion and eventual planning and implementation.

The improvement process in an organization involves looking at the current results, understanding the criteria for success (matched with mission, vision, values), and then coming up with the plans and actions to implement. It’s important to recognize that if you are looking to improve a tangible business result or the culture, involvement is the key in any continuous improvement process. Management involvement is important, but it’s not necessarily an indicator of successful change.

To have success with your improvement process the following should be considered:

  • Does your organization adequately measure what is important for the business and culture (values) – do your measures promote the right behaviors for the culture?
  • Does the business planning process involve more than just management? At what level of the organization is business planning and business improvement done?
  • Is there an improvement process that people really use and contribute ideas for improvement? Is it easy to provide new ideas? Does anyone actively ask for the ideas and do something with them?
  • Does the organization place value on people being involved and help free them up from daily duties to help implement change?
  • For people to know the values and culture are important, how much does the organization communicate the values and what is being worked on? Can people see success with the changes the organization has said they would work on in the past?

Both of the organizations in this example now understand the true nature of continuous improvement. They ensure a high level of involvement from all levels of the organization during their business planning, and while reviewing their success in living their values. Their people have become quite honest with what needs to be worked on, but are also very realistic about what the business can afford and how much at any one time can be worked on. By focusing on the above points first, one organization had 500 suggestions from their people and the other had over 800 last year. These numbers do not include the ideas that were developed during the business planning process. Although a number of ideas were not feasible, there were about 10% that had merit and were worked on. Of the number of suggestions that were worked on, about 50% were relatively easy to do and about 10% provided significant business savings or improvement for the organization.

In addition to following the points listed above for attaining greater involvement in the improvement process, each company developed a specific continuous improvement process that had the following characteristics:

  • All suggestions went to a team looking at all of the suggestions, not to a person’s direct supervisor.
  • All suggestions were coded for the Key Result Area or Value it would improve.
  • The suggestions were able to be submitted by paper or online.
  • The suggestions were viewable by everyone online once the improvement team viewed them.
  • The status of all suggestions were kept up-to-date in the online database.
  • Each person that submitted an idea received a personal notification that the idea was received and how to see its status.
  • For ideas that required a team to work on them, the person who suggested the idea was asked to be on the team.
  • Recognition of implemented ideas was done privately and the person was asked if they would allow their name to be mentioned at places like a General Meeting or in the company newsletter.
  • A nominal monetary recognition was provided for implemented ideas, regardless of the value it provided the organization.

These two organizations put a lot of effort into engaging people and promoting the importance of being involved in improving their work environment. They then backed that up by having a very fair and transparent continuous improvement system.

Five part series on Culture Change:

  1. Steps to Culture Change
  2. What Impacts an Organization’s Culture?
  3. Behaviors to Support Your Desired Culture
  4. Business Practices to Support your Desired Culture
  5. Continuous Improvement Strategies to Build Your Desired Culture