Can You Build and Measure an Improvement Culture?

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This is such a simple but such a critical question.  And it has several critical elements:

Build – meaning this is going to take some time and it will start at one level and grow to another level.

Improvement – in other words we want to have an organization that wants to keep improving itself, which is necessary for any organization to succeed.  If it doesn’t grow, it dies.  But here the word is improvement – keep getting better, probably in several arenas.

Culture - the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization--a corporate culture could be  focused on the bottom line

Let’s define success first.  How would you know that you had an improvement culture?  What would you measure and what would your score be?

Here are four determinants you could use:

ORGANIZATIONAL GROWTH: The organization has seen upward trends for X years (5 or more) on important key performance indicators, which would be different for different industries – revenue, patient recovery rates, new product successes, quality, delivery time, etc.

IMPROVEMENT PROJECT SUCCESS: For this article, I am concentrating on process improvement, so I will assume this means a process improvement culture. Success would be doing so many process improvement projects per year, seeing business results from X%, and having processes with successful operational execution for Y% of the organization’s strategic initiatives.

CUSTOMER AND INTERNAL DATA:  Customer data about processes is trending up and customers see their needs fulfilled; internal operational and financial data show improved performance of processes and lead to identification of root causes.

LEADERSHIP AND FOLLOWERSHIP:  The number of leaders and employees who are monitoring processes, following data indicators, and making decisions about processes on a regular basis; the number of new projects, Kaizens, that are started and completed, and the # of leaders and employees engaged in them.  This number should be growing over all, so more leaders and employees are doing this, and many are doing second, third, fourth and fifth projects. 

But it is also important to know where the organization is starting.  The CMMI Process Maturity framework gives a good visual graphic with limited explanations.

When you read further about framework there are specifics for each level, with explanations for different elements (governance, projects, metrics, training, etc.) by level.  It’s important to know where the organization is when it starts, so anyone can evaluate if it is moving up the maturity scale.  That would certainly be an indication that the organization is becoming more process focused. 

Building a culture means paying attention to it on a regular basis, have a daily discipline, involving a large number of employees and leaders, monitoring results with data, and being enthusiastic about the process. One way to think about it is like building a great professional football team.  The owner needs an experienced coach who is a motivational leader. That’s a start; then it takes time to get the team working together, with plays and game plans. The measure is in each real game- does the team win, can it pull a game out in difficult times?  The coach has to build the team every year, getting new players, and trading players as necessary.  Money and other resources support this effort.  It is an ongoing effort—all to work every day to build a great team.

Koenigsaecker in his book Leading the Lean Enterprise Transformation quantifies what is needed for Lean Transformation.  He mentions that measuring the number of kaizen events is one way to gauge the transformation.  Kaizen events provide three kinds of returns:  improved business results, basic learning in principles and practices, and cultural change.  Personal kaizen experience is the most significant building block for successful Lean transformation.  The author recommends that general managers participate in12 kaizen events in their first year and continue with two every year after that.  For team members he says that it takes two kaizen events to begin to have them believe in the lean stuff, three to seven events for a personal commitment to Lean, and eight or more events to get that belief to a high level.   He always recommends the number of Kaizen events per month at n (total employee count)/ 10.  That ‘s a lot of kaizens!  It shows how frequent and extensive the commitment must be to generate a continuous improvement culture.

The point is – building an improvement culture takes a plan, committed leadership, many regular and ongoing improvement projects, and keeping at it.   

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