How to Develop a Culture of Continuous Improvement

Three Parts:Making a PlanSharing Your VisionCreating Desire

The idea of continuous improvement comes from the Japanese word kaizen and has been adopted by western corporations and individuals alike since the publication of Masaaki Imai’s book Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success in 1986. Any kind of change takes time, and changing a culture (rather than implementing a program) can take many years.[1][2] If you are looking to create a culture of continuous improvement for your business, patience and planning are necessary.

Part 1
Making a Plan

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    Consider the future. The demands of the present often take priority in our work and non-work lives. However, having a vision for the future and long term goals are the starting point for improvement. Start by considering where you see yourself and your company in five to ten years.[3]
    • Be honest and specific as you consider where you are now and where you want to be in the future, and determine what you need to do to get from point A to point B.
    • For example, if your business has issues with quality control, identify the recurrent issue and map out a plan that resolves it.
    • Privilege behavior over production. It’s easy to say, “My company will double our profits,” but improvements never happen without changing behaviors. Changing outcomes is a benefit of changing habits, attitudes, and skills.[4]
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    Write a True North statement.[5] True North statements indicate a change in direction. Consider your business goals and write a few statements that address these goals, and then determine which statement best fits your long term plan.[6]
    • A True North statement for a business might be “100% customer satisfaction.”
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    Reflect on your past. After deciding on your True North statement, itemize past behaviors that could hinder your overall goal. These behaviors must be modified in order for you to reach your goals.[7]
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    Start with small improvements, rather than grand, large-scale changes. Think “quality over quantity”![8]
    • Small improvements allow you and/or your employees to see results more quickly, which can be a positive reinforcement. While large improvements are of course the goal, not seeing results for years can foster a sense of disappointment or hopelessness. [9]
    • Local improvements can also serve as a model for large scale changes. [10]
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    Be consistent. Changing everything at once can cause confusion and frustration. Make one change and make sure it sticks before making another change. [11]
    • Strive for consistency also as you implement these changes. For instance, if your True North statement was "100% customer satisfaction," one change you might make is to set a standard time span for responses to customer complaints.[12] If you decided that all customer complaints should be answered within six hours, be sure to keep that change consistent.

Part 2
Sharing Your Vision

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    Paint the big picture. Employees should understand how they, individually, contribute and are necessary to the larger goals of the company, not just in terms of how what they do benefits an increased profit return, but also how what they do matters in the larger world.[13]
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    Give clear instructions. Having clear guidelines and clarifying your expectations from the start is important for any collaborative or individual work. Showing employees how to do something versus telling them how can also clear up any initial questions.
    • However, demonstrate trust by allowing employees to be in control of their own work. Allow them to determine how they can best complete the task at hand or to make modifications to the changes so that they can complete their work efficiently. [14]
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    Make your True North statement your personal or business mantra. This phrase should be repeated often. Your employees should know the True North statement and how it is important to their own projects and daily tasks.[15]
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    Participate in your vision. Be visible as someone contributing to the goals in everyday ways, rather than simply “overseeing” your employees. Actions speak louder than words! If your employees see you interacting with customers and responding to customer complaints, you are serving as a model for future behavior and reminding them through your actions that this goal is important to the overall success of your company.[16]
    • Although administrative work is a large part of managing a company, schedule regular intervals to step outside your office and help your employees with their tasks.
    • If you run a retail business, for example, help out with stocking inventory, ask customers if you can help them find anything, or work the register.

Part 3
Creating Desire

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    Allow experimentation.[17] Making room for creative approaches and even failure fosters a positive working environment and allows employees to bring their own talents to the table.
    • While the goals you have itemized in your plan should be consistent across the board, understand that your employees have different ways of thinking and a variety of skills. One employee’s method for resolving a customer complaint, for instance, might not be what you specifically envisioned—it might be even better!
    • Consider posing situational examples in group meetings and asking employees how they would resolve the problem. For instance, “X customer has a screaming baby and can’t find Y product. How would you help him/her?” Thought experiments can then be tested in the work environment. In the following meeting, have employees reflect on how these experiments went in actuality.
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    Show appreciation publicly. Everyone needs affirmation, and highlighting jobs well done both reinforces new habits and skills and inspires others to do well. [18][19]
    • Make a point to give praise immediately when possible. [20]
    • Set aside time in weekly or bi-weekly meetings to compliment employees on what they are doing well. Mention specific instances when you have observed an employee utilizing a new skill or behavior that is part of your long term vision and reaffirm how that small act is important to the larger goals.
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    Incentivize employee objectives.[21] While verbal praise offers emotional reward, tangible benefits (such as time or money) also reinforce a job well done and create a positive work environment.
    • For example, if your True North statement was “100% customer satisfaction,” you might offer a bonus to employees who have had no customer complaints for a month.
    • To promote a collaborate environment, you might choose to reward all of your employees with a nice group dinner or a weekend trip if your company meets the quarterly goal.

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Categories: Education and Communications | Leadership and Mentoring