One of the mistakes companies make when they try to create a business system or develop a continuous improvement culture is that they focus on the wrong things. They scrutinize behaviors. They spend their energy reacting to unexpected results. They bounce from tool to tool trying to find a fix for their problems.
What they often overlook, though, is that fact that their employees are often not guided by unifying principles. There is no clear corporate identity. Guiding principles are like beacons for the team, and create continuity as people come and go.
The following list of principles comes from our continuous improvement transformation model. It breaks the progress from an ordinary company to a world-class one into six phases. Each of these phases requires the adoption of certain principles to successfully navigate through it. While this is a fairly long list of principles, they are rolled out over an extended period. By the time you move to the next phase, living by the previous principles should have become a habit.
In the committing phase, the key leaders of an organization turn the corner from accepting business as usual to choosing a new path. It is one of the most difficult of the phases because it entails accepting that there is a flaw in the way the business is currently being run, or at least that there is a better way to do things.
There is an old expression that says even the longest journeys begin with a single step. The same is true when developing a continuous improvement culture. You won’t immediately reach your destination. This phase transitions the leadership team from deciding to acting and sets the tone for your Lean journey.
There are some key skills that your team will require as you develop your business system. You’ll also need some basic structure and systems. The focus of this phase is developing the required talent and building a Lean infrastructure.
Once the foundation is built, it is time to start building upon it. In the early part of the ramp up, you’ll probably focus on cultivating talent (though you will still need to deliver results). While that sort of focus on skills growth never goes away, by the end of the ramp up phase, most people on your team should have at least some continuous improvement experience. At that point, there will be a subtle shift from learning and teaching as the priority to a greater focus on results. Learning should not go away, but there will be a change in the ratio of how time is spent. Note that this phase can take a number of years. It is important to be patient.
The risk during Phase 6 is complacency. Once the company gathers steam, it has to keep it. Don’t confuse this phase for steady state, though. The improvement trajectory should still be steep. It is just that it is using well-established systems with highly trained people. The stability of this phase also allows for greater experimentation with more sophisticated tools.
Few companies will make the leap from Phase 6 to Phase 7. First of all, it is hard to uncover the subtle distinctions between a very good company and a great one. Secondly, even if you know what to do, it can be extremely difficult to actually accomplish it. Winning isn’t easy.
About this article: This article is part of “The Nuts and Bolts Guide to Continuous Improvement.” This practical guide to Lean takes a phased approach to creating strong business systems to create a culture of continuous improvement in your organization.
In each phase of your development, we introduce a handful of new principles to integrate into your corporate DNA. These principles are presented here in a rule format, but they are actually derived from ‘natural laws’ of business. For example, ‘Structure Your Thinking’ comes from the natural law that organized problem solving efforts tend to generate less waste and produce better results than snap judgements. Unlike values that are company dependent, these principles hold true across companies and industries.
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By Jeff Hajek
September 7th, 2016
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