Organisational Culture for Continuous Improvement

I have been working with leading Business Improvement guru, Tim Franklin, preparing the PR for his latest book which offers an introduction to Continuous Improvement (CI) at beginner level, encompassing Lean, TQM, Six Sigma and the other related methodologies of CI.

He was developing an analogy of a geographic expedition to describe Continuous Improvement. As you start out on an expedition, you can see the horizon clearly as being the final destination, but as you walk towards it, it recedes and eludes you, like a moving target. CI is like this in practise. In the beginning you think that you know the maximum benefit that you can lever from a particular process, but if you continue to revisit the same process time and time again, it's amazing how your comprehension alters through experience ? learning by doing.

Sadly, many organisations don't develop this advanced comprehension, because they don't embrace the ideology behind CI, they see TQM or Lean as a set of tools and techniques, rather than a different way of working.

By simply imposing CI as an additional set of craft skills, employees can become suspicious, wondering just what the hidden agenda may be. Just look up the word Lean in the dictionary ? devoid of fat, sparse ? no wonder that many employees think that it is another term for downsizing.

In Tim's view, to get the best from CI, you need to have an organisational culture that supports the ideology ? empowerment, no blame for trying and failing, good leadership with modest egos.

Given the choice of

a)imposing CI;
b)modifying CI to suit the prevailing culture; or
c)changing the culture to suit CI guess which one most organisations adopt?

Organisational culture can act as an invisible force to repel CI introduction. Being invisible, management can misinterpret the lack of progress wrongly, and 'throw' more money or management time, or both at the implementation to try and establish a CI momentum, without succeeding.

If I can close with analogy once more ? if CI is an expedition, surely you need to understand your point of embarkation as well as your destination; you need to understand the organisation culture that you are dealing with before you embark upon your CI journey.

Tim has developed his own web blog (an unusual step for top Business Improvement gurus but an interesting development) which can be found at http://blogs.ardice.com/ambiance - I have a vested interest in Tim's work but I think this has the potential to become a useful tool for business leaders to reflect upon how they can lead and manage change in their organisation.

John Hicks is the Managing Director of Headline Promotions Press & PR

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