It’s not your location, it’s your culture

Cathy Johnson, VP at Celerant Consulting UK, says that creating a culture of continuous improvement is vital whether you're planning a move or not


One of the most pressing tasks for the senior leadership of any company today is to constantly challenge performance and create a culture where the whole organisation is continuously improving. A culture that is endemic to the way you do business and can evolve with your changing needs and the growing expectations of your customers, no matter where your process operations are located. It’s one thing though, to get people to sign up to improvement initiatives, it’s another thing to get them to really buy into them and own them. So the challenge for senior leadership is to create a culture where improvement is the norm.

Change must be embedded in the mind
A recent report from The Economist Intelligence Unit and sponsored by Celerant Consulting, ‘How companies are managing change in a recession’ shows that the main reasons change programmes fail is a lack of clearly defined or achievable milestones and objectives – and the inability of management to win the hearts and minds of their senior managers and employees. Put simply, unless the pursuit of performance improvement is structured, highly focused, and the need for change ‘bulldozes a road down the centre of people’s minds’, it will ultimately fail.

Continuous Improvement must touch every individual and every part of the process. So leaders must first demonstrate that they themselves are totally committed to improvement. This is vital if they are to secure real support from people at all levels of the business, particularly those leading the project. They must also ensure that they have the ability to embed deep behavioural change within all the employees involved. These people will undergo an emotional journey throughout the process and it might be uncomfortable at times, so they need to be fully supported and coached.

Behavioural change at the sharp end is the key to success and to bring it about leaders must get commitment to results and buy-in through effective communication management. They must make it happen through support and leadership and then make it stick through coaching, training and real ‘ownership’.

Soft power is the key to hard results
Imagine you want to push a stone block up a hill. You call in the experts and they measure the weight of the block, the angle of the hill, the condition of the ground, and then tell you the best way to push it. Now you gather a group of people together and everyone starts to push. The block slowly begins to move. So the experts step away. But what happens then? Do your people step away too, so that the block begins to slide back down the hill? Or do they continue pushing? Do they even know why they’re pushing?

That’s the problem with so many corporate improvement initiatives. Top level targets are set, consultants are called in and measurements and programmes are run under the banner of ‘Continuous Improvement’. Yet too often the local units are often left to push, or even select from a prescribed toolkit to push, the actual improvements themselves. So the structure of these programmes becomes fragmented, the complexity of implementation increases and after ‘the big launch’ the momentum wears off and things slip back.

The problem can be exacerbated by the fact that too many programmes are over-designed to start with, because they’re driven by a need to ‘be seen to do the right thing’. An example of this is the perceived need for toolkits like Lean and Six Sigma. Experts might be hired, considered to be world class in lean operations, but they can find that knowledge alone is not sufficient to really embed the improvements. Huge sums will have been spent, with very little incremental benefit. All because the human dimension has been neglected and the local sites have not been engaged from the bottom up.

Support your local team
Another problem, particularly in large organisations, is the role of the central change group. They are often viewed as unnecessary intruders by local units whose main priorities are ensuring supply and serving customers on a daily basis. So unless it’s been carefully planned, a programme imposed from the centre will not act as an incentive. Changes will only be supported in a scattergun fashion and people will struggle to implement them in addition to their normal workload.

The result will be a non holistic approach, no real behavioural change and certainly no meaningful improvement in performance. That’s why the change group itself needs careful consideration. Too often, they are tasked with selling their services, whilst lacking the skills and profile to gain credibility at that local level. So the engagement agenda is missing, there’s a lack of traction and the stereotype of employee resistance is reinforced. To get real value from a Continuous Improvement programme the action must happen where the processes are executed.

The change group’s skill set must therefore move beyond the technical and process areas and into the engagement and tactical arena. To really change the way people operate, they must: Communicate a shared, achievable agenda; show where areas of best practice exist and transfer that knowledge in a simple, pragmatic way and most importantly, they must ensure that when they leave, the local team feel that they are now in charge of the ball.

Improved processes mean improved returns
If behavioural change is essential to sustainable success, visibility of results is the key to touching and motivating the maximum number of people. Individuals need to quickly see the fruits of their labour relate to the investment in a programme and to the benefits achieved. Seeing quick wins will also motivate them through the most difficult phase of change. Change is never simple, but if it’s properly planned towards the business objectives and then well executed, it will deliver real value in these challenging times.

Recognising the complexity of the processes behind your operations is only half the battle. To win, you need to think through the implementation process:
1. Baseline – It’s crucial to gain a deep understanding of how key processes currently operate in and how the work really gets done. What goes wrong most often and why? What are the hidden workarounds? What levers will deliver the improvement and how will you manage the new operation?
2. Get lean – Using the baseline, implement a quick win plan that tackles the inefficiencies in key processes fast. Combine activities and improve communication. Make sure everyone understands the impact of their work on others.
3. Improve – Implement a plan for deep improvement that will prepare your operation for real transformation. Measure the work that most directly relates to real output. Eliminate root causes of variation and error. Create solutions that reduce complexity and improve performance.
4. Transform – Align your processes to the excellent experience your customers demand. Re-define your performance management systems and set accountability at each level of the organisation to measure and drive performance.
5. Sustain – The ultimate measure of success with process excellence is sustainability. The goal is a positive legacy that will go on adding value – anywhere in the world. n

For more details email or call +44 20 8338 5000.