How leaders can create a culture of continuous improvement

Paul Boughton

With five actions, leaders in the oil and gas industry can encourage small steps that add up to compound productivity improvement, says Lee Stannett.

Organisations looking for 'breakthrough' improvements often implement major change programmes, involving uncomfortably big steps and much physical, emotional and intellectual energy. Fortunately, there is an alternative. Creating incremental and cumulative improvements, over a period of time, is a different way of creating value for an organisation. It's more evolution than revolution and it's known as continuous improvement (CI).

CI is the basis behind management philosophies such as Kaizen, Six Sigma and Total Quality Management. The concept was first introduced in Japanese businesses in the 1950s but it has now spread worldwide into diverse sectors such as manufacturing, engineering, consumer electronics, telecommunications and healthcare.

CI involves small steps and gradual progress. However these can add up to compound productivity improvement. Chipping away at small challenges over time can help to crack previously intractable problems which have blocked organisational progress. A key benefit is that improvements based on small steps rather than radical changes are less likely to require major capital investment. Also, because the ideas come from the employees themselves, there are likely to be fewer problems with implementation.[Page Break]

Implications for leaders

Instilling continuous improvement requires a cultural change for leaders and their teams. Leaders may need training to help them change their behaviour and practices if they are to advocate CI in the workplace. However, when CI becomes integral to the way that leaders and teams operate, it can drive an organisation to achieve its strategic goals.

Here are five actions to help leaders create a culture of continuous improvement:

- Contract at the outset. Leaders need to agree the parameters of a CI initiative with their teams, particularly how they will react if little benefit is delivered or if it is judged a failure. Not all CI efforts will be successful. How the leader handles unsuccessful situations will be a 'moment of truth' that can strengthen - or irreparably damage - the relationship with the team.

- Set the goals. Leaders should work with the team to set clear goals but they should give their team the freedom to make their own decisions to achieve the objectives. Leaders should support a culture of honest, open exploration and not pre-judge ideas or close them down too quickly.

- Trust in the expertise of the team. To create an effective CI culture, the team leader (who may have been appointed on the basis of superior technical knowledge or experience) needs to create a team culture that not only recognises the expertise that's available within the team but also values the contributions of the team members.[Page Break]

A core principle of CI is to 'adopt and master' processes, rather than to seek new or heroic solutions every time. To achieve this, leaders may have to coax out contributions from individuals. There may be 'unusual suspects' who can make an important and perhaps unexpected contribution.

Leaders need to ensure that team members feel energised and able to contribute. This is about delegating effectively, not 'lobbing the problem over the fence' to people, who then feel exposed or under-supported.

Leaders will also need to be able to reconcile diverse and possibly conflicting contributions. This is especially important when a team is comprised of experts or when they have to relate to other expert teams. The leader may have to cope with emotional issues within the team such as defensiveness, protection of a specialist point of view or unwillingness to share knowledge.[Page Break]

A key aspect of their role will be to ensure that each team member feels valued and respected, even when their point of view or approach is not adopted. Not all expertise will be equally relevant or appropriate to a particular CI issue.

- Prioritise outcomes. Through a CI process, teams can generate many improvement ideas and if these are not prioritised, it can result in an unwieldy amount of projects that may not benefit the business. Leaders need to link the work of the team to business goals, by being decisive and clear in prioritising which projects will deliver the greatest value.

- Learn the lessons. Following a CI initiative, leaders should conduct a debrief to examine how the team achieved the outcomes and whether any lessons or principles can be learned and transferred to the next situation; equally, they should review and capture knowledge from situations where CI delivered less than optimal results.[Page Break]


These five actions underpin continuous improvement. However, to effectively support a CI culture - and to inspire confidence in others - leaders will need to be credible. They should adopt a consistent framework and approach to situations, one which they are willing to explain; they should demonstrate fair and consistent standards in the way that they treat people and they need to be honest when situations are complex and uncertain. They also need to be authentic in their leadership style and genuine in their support for their team. They'll be seen as manipulative and opportunistic if they simply try to get the team to tackle isolated problems or situations, if they don't really believe in their people.

All teams should be continually seeking to improve their performance.

Lee Stannett is a client director at learning and development specialist Hemsley Fraser, Saltash. Plymouth, UK.

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