Continuous Improvement Strategies that Defy Corporate Aging

The Editor for Smart Business Cleveland, Fred Koury, recently wrote “Efficiency is the end goal for every business…Never stop innovating ways to be more efficient in every aspect of your business.”

It is that constant search for continuous improvement in everything we do that will be the only thing to differentiate an organization from its competitors in the long run. Koury ends his article stating, “A great product with an inflated cost structure behind it won’t do you any good in today’s economy.”

I believe that continuous improvement is not necessarily something an organization consciously sets about to do every day. Companies that innovate and improve continuously do it as a matter of their collective attitude and mindset. It is bred into the culture of the organization, which is, perhaps, one of the most important, yet difficult challenges for a company’s management and leadership team. Continuous improvement is, by definition, change. And change is hard to do.  

A requirement in promoting a change-oriented organization that constantly seeks innovation and continuous improvement is effective communication by management that change is desired. Moreover, with change comes some risk of mistakes and restarts. Tolerance and acceptance of these experiences is expressed in Lessons Learned workshops, where the focus is always forward, never punitive. In effect, mistakes and restarts are expected. They are signs of growth. Successes are celebrated.

McKinsey & Company published an article in their journal last month that defined four disciplines of Lean Management, which describe the building blocks of an organizational culture that promotes continuous improvement. Those disciplines are:

  • Delivering value efficiently to the customer: Of course to do this, the team needs to understand what the customer values. To assume that the customer values what they are selling is only focusing on where the customer’s values and the seller’s standard set of deliverables overlap. It leads to mediocrity and smells of arrogance in some ways. Great organizations find ways to fulfill needs, not find needs that satisfy only what they are delivering.
  • Enabling people to lead and contribute to their fullest potential: I think the first step in this is to remove obstacles from the path of the team members. Equip them with tools and the opportunity to excel to become their best. Concurrently, create the expectation that the changes represented by those actions are to result in performance improvements.
  • Discovering better ways of working: This, I think, is where the Lessons Learned process is vital. If done often, it creates the culture of constantly searching for improvements in everything we do.
  • Connecting strategy, goals and meaningful purpose: This last discipline is one of the most interesting and challenging. It starts with communication and is then followed and supported by example. The challenge is in continuously and consistently tying it all together so that the majority of the team knows what is expected and why. The more everyone knows and understands, the better we can all become – individually and collectively.

Studies on aging have shown that learning new skills promotes a sharper mind and better health. It continually exercises the mind and keeps one younger. Similarly, change keeps an organization young. And a key attribute of youth, compared to old age, is growth. So, let’s focus on staying young and growing – regardless of our age.

“As long as I am breathing, in my eyes, I am just beginning.”

Criss Jami

“It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old, they grow old because they stop pursuing dreams.”

Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez