Log in | Register | Contact Us | View Cart


Gotta Go Lean Blog > Lean Blog Archives


12 Ways to Start Building a Continuous Improvement Culture (+Video +PDF)

Creating an organization that embraces continuous improvement is not easy. It takes strong, committed leaders who are willing to pay the up-front costs, and who resist the urge to harvest gains at the expense of future improvements. It takes a team that believes that when they make changes, they share in the rewards of their effort. It takes an underlying system that supports the people in the organization, and makes it easy for them to succeed. It is a monumental task to form a continuous improvement culture where everybody believes that the current way of doing things is never enough to ensure long-term success.

But like every journey, Lean starts with a series of small steps. In this article, I spell out some ways you can start building the foundation for continuous improvement success.

  1. Learn how your people really feel about Lean. Don’t make assumptions here. Assess your team and see how they really feel about the organization and its needs. A continuous improvement culture is based upon a common understanding that getting better is important. If your team doesn’t see the need to improve, they won’t commit to changes. One more thing. Make the assessment anonymous so people feel free to answer honestly.
  2. Know where your team and your company stand. Some companies are well along the Lean path and don’t even know it. Some think they are much further ahead than they really are. Individual skills vary widely as well. Conduct a Lean assessment to get a feel for where your company is, which will help you develop your improvement strategy. (Need help with a Lean assessment? We can help you conduct your initial assessment in a variety of ways. Use our Lean survey, consulting services, or let us coach you as you assess yourself.)
  3. Plan for 10% improvement time. Do the math and see how much output you can expect if you start reallocating production time to improvement efforts. Lean is not magic. If you don’t invest in it, you won’t get the rewards. The 10% time includes stand-up meetings, training, and projects. You’ll have to compensate with part-time or temporary help, overtime, or lower production—at least until the improvement efforts starts paying dividends.
  4. Don’t harvest gains. There is a tendency for managers to pull people out of teams after improvements. Don’t do this until you have the 10% extra capacity mentioned in number 2. If you do, continuous improvement will always be an uphill battle and will wear people out. If you get that improvement time built into people’s workloads, jobs get easier. Think of it like surfing. It is far easier to do it when you are on the front of the wave than when you are paddling to try to get over the crest.
  5. Be creative in training. Training is a constant thing, but not everyone is self-motivated to do it. Give incentives. Pay for classes and let people take half a day off to attend. Or set up a lunch program where people eat free if they attend training or watch a DVD. Just make sure that the training is part of an overall improvement plan.
  6. Standardize the systems. Keep people from wasting their brainpower on the nit-noid stuff. Don’t have them tracking down where to buy Velcro or looking for tape for a label maker. Get common areas set up with enough tools and supplies for teams to use to make improvements when there is downtime.
  7. Make status public. Don’t treat improvements like back-room deals. Every morning in stand-up meetings, directly ask each team member what they improved the previous day. People will rapidly tire of saying “Nothing.” Also, write down the improvements people make. Do this publicly so teams will see that improvements matter. Then reference the list when making decisions about positive things—promotions, choice assignments, project selections, etc. (Learn about Daily Management. Check out our Daily Management Worksheet and let us know if you want help using it.)
  8. Reward success. Make it worth their while for people to do what you want them to. Those familiar with Lean know that employees will reap tremendous workplace benefits later, but the catch-22 is that they won’t see those gains until they commit to Lean. In the beginning, free lunches work wonders. So do awards that can be prominently displayed on desks. Keep in mind that the benefit of financial rewards are questioned by many. My personal belief is that there is a place for them, but they have to discourage social loafing and they have to be fair. Without those two things, financial rewards will fail. If you don’t believe that financial rewards work, think of a waiter or waitress working for tips. They figure out what their customers value, and then adjust their behaviors to meet those needs, which in turn maximizes their earnings. Commissioned salespeople do the same. Again, the key is fairness.
  9. Focus on strengths. There is a tendency for managers to spend a lot of their time trying to convince the unwilling, or convert the skeptical. Instead, they should spend their time working with the people who are committed to change. Two things happen. The first is that the time spent coaching is much more productive. The second is that it sends a message to others, especially when the effort is linked to rewards (see number 8 above). People will gravitate towards becoming committed participants when they see something in it for them.
  10. Don’t make all the gains for the company. People have a pecking order for their priorities. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs paints the big picture theory of motivation, but not everyone achieves self-actualization by doing great things professionally. Others get it by being great parents, or even outstanding skiers. You have to know what drives people, and you have to make sure their continuous improvement efforts contribute something to their own goals as well as those of the company.
  11. Don’t leap ahead. Many companies fail because they move too fast. They try to put kanban in place before they have standardized their processes or smoothed their demand with heijunka. They start cross training and flexing people before they have good daily management in place. They start acting as if they have 100% buy-in while people are still on the fence about Lean. It is like starting a campfire. If you add the big logs before you have a good base, the fire will go out. But if you progressively add incrementally larger combustibles, the fire will soon be roaring.
  12. Commit to the long haul. Lean, despite what you may hear from its most zealous proponents, does not provide immediate gains. It can take a long time to get to the point where its benefits outweigh its costs. Some estimates say as much as 2-3 years for a typical company. Some cost are obvious—training, consulting, building improvement workshops, etc. Some of those costs are hard to link to Lean—turnover, poor job satisfaction, strained supplier relationships, etc. Make no mistake: Lean is hard! When you ask people to do hard things, there will be resistance, and that resistance has a cost. Fortunately, though, Lean makes companies win, and winning is fun. Winning also creates opportunities for people, and opportunities are also fun. If you are easily discouraged as a company, then Lean is probably not the right choice for you. Nearly three quarters of companies using Lean report that the gains are not as big as they wanted. Many will abandon the journey. Only a few join that quarter where Lean exceeds expectations.

So, the short of it is that continuous improvement requires a solid foundation to thrive. None of the items in this list are rocket science, but all of them are hard. Fortunately, though, if you commit to them, you will see a sustained improvement in your continuous improvement culture.

A PDF of this article is included in our Phase 3 Information Series.

Learn More.


If you like the Gotta Go Lean Blog, please help us spread the word about it!

5S/Visual Controls Lego Exercise


  • […] per la vostra visita!Questa settimana vediamo i migliori articoli dal 07/01/2011 fino al 13/01/2011:12 ways to start building a continuous improvement culture dal blog Gotta Go Lean di Jeff Hajek: Ci sono vari modi per iniziare la cultura del miglioramento […]

  • Jeff,
    Really liked your article except for 2 things:
    1. I would like to see all of us consultants get away from using the term “Lean”. I think it has some negative connotations, particularly with companies that have either failed [as you point out in your article] or, have turned right around and layed people off as a result of improvements. I prefer to stay simply with “Continuous Process Improvement”.
    2. I disagree with a portion of number 7. I don’t believe that it ever does any good to embarrass one in front of one’s peers.

    • Jeff Hajek says:


      I agree that the term Lean has a very negative connotation for some (but no more than Dilbert has made managers have a bad name). I do prefer the term continuous improvement, though. Lean is somewhat restrictive. It is the most widely applied philosophy, though, so I do still use the term. It is also the most widely searched, so if I want people to find my site, I have to make use of it. In no way, though, am I particularly attached to it. When my customers move on, I will happily go with them.

      As for the second comment, I don’t mean it as a way of embarrassing people. I just intend it a way of matter-of-factly treating doing improvements as a part of the job. I don’t see it any differently than posting KPIs up on the wall.

      I think of it as checking status. Any equipment problems yesterday? Any issues needing follow-up? What improvement did you make yesterday? I’d like to see all team members see not having a daily improvement as an abnormal condition, and work to avoid it. (Of course, that means that they have time, training, and resources to do them.)

      Thanks for the comment. I always appreciate hearing other people’s perspectives.


  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Alan Kleber. Alan Kleber said: 12 Ways to Start Building a Continuous Improvement Culture http://bit.ly/hDyb1N #lean […]

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Copyright © 2009-2018, Velaction Continuous Improvement, LLC | Legal Information | Disclaimer