What's the right kind of continuous improvement programme?

Dr IOAN REES

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Despite the fact that most continuous improvement (CI) programmes fail, having one is still an imperative.

It is not a choice, within schools and organisations serious about growth and success because a successfully implemented CI programme will impact directly on outcomes, help align culture with strategy and reward staff for being actively engaged with the process of improvement.

Below are four characteristics that we recognise during successful CI implementation:

1.     An acceptance that continuous improvement usually means a culture change:

Even before commencing, management accept that for continuous improvement to be most effective it cannot be a short-term project or a fly-by-night initiative; it will need embedding as part of organisational culture. This message is actively communicated to employees at each level of the organisation, dispelling any quick-fix illusions that may abound. Management also explain that culture change means the promotion of new behaviours and habits such as problem-solving rather than finger-pointing, proactivity rather than passivity, and accountability rather than excuse-making.


2.     Long-term, hands-on commitment from management:

In organisations where CI programmes are successful, leadership, middle and front-line managers are fully committed to, and engaged in, the programme for the long-term. Today’s trend of needing to distribute leadership across organisation’s has however sent a confusing message to many managers  -- leading them to interpret distributed leadership within the context of CI as needing to ‘hold back’ on their direct involvement in the process. When this happens employees don’t get the full the message about the significance of the programme to the organisation. A hands-off approach to CI from mangement (even in the name of distributed leadership) will not work.

They must take part and, be seen to be take part demonstrating the commitment of the organisation to the success of the process and underscoring the importance of everybody’s contribution. The best CI programmes see managers working ‘alongside’ colleagues on a level playing-field, providing unrivalled opportunity for building closeness whilst maintaining essential, professional lines. So just like the Player:Manager role in a football club – taking part in the game is important whilst also requesting regular progress reports and impact data of all relevant innovation projects is crucial too. This way, managers remain well placed to help overcome any challenges and obstacles that block momentum and success.


3.     Operational performance drives continuous improvement:

CI innovations and projects are selected only if they will improve operational performance. As selection is made by projecting what impact an innovation is likely to deliver when it is in place, performance metrics are used to identify the areas in need for improvement and the value of the innovation is ascertained. Guiding questions often include;

  • What will be the ROI/impact from producing this innovation?
  • How many persons (cost) will be required to complete the innovation?
  • How long will the innovation process take?
  • Is it, therefore, worth it?


This being said, it is also acknowledged that engaging employees in the process of CI is, in itself, valuable - even if the product will be low-impact per se.

4.     Dual-alignment: Performance and culture

Organisations that succeed in creating a continuous improvement culture understand that the return and rewards observed are related to better alignment to both performance and cultural goals:

  • Rewarding closer alignment to new performance targets:

Rewards can be linked to clear performance targets expected to be seen from an innovation (using a pre-innovation baseline e.g. from the preceding year). Colleagues/teams and departments benefit, as does the customer.

  • Rewarding improved alignment to the organisation’s culture:

It is rewarding for employees to know that the introduction of a new innovation will help take the (entire) organsiation one-step closer to achieving its vision and values-promise.

Colleagues/teams and departments feel valued and the customer receives a better experience.

Establishing performance and cultural targets as part of the CI cycle, therefore, has a positive effect on a workforce, such as

  • Motivating participation in CI projects as colleagues, teams and departments realise that achieving a quantifiable improvement goal is “good for them” and makes their work easier.
  • Creating a healthy relationship with management who are now able to engage with other employees in a number of different ways during CI: establishing the performance and cultural goals, taking part in the innovation and in celebrating the reward.


    All of the above may seem common sense to many organisations, but most are not tapping into the full potential of a well executed programme. Those that do, and succeed, benefit from many gains or because they realise continuous improvement is a long-term commitment to shifting culture involving management.

    They know that managers will need to roll up their sleeves and take part. They also know that identifying and tackling high impact innovations will not only deliver great performance results but also build a self sustaining system on the staff because they feel valued for the work that they do. Continuous improvement is then embedded and becomes the culture and norms, and the organisation a placement all things are possible.

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