Continuously Improving

The term “continuous improvement” has been around a long time. The truth is most companies don’t do continuous improvement at all, rather they schedule improvements in batches and projects.

The effect of batch improvements is that “improvement” is not “business as usual” and people learn what they do every day, not what they do intermittently. That is one reason why it is usually necessary to precede a kaizen event with a training session.

But there is a deeper ramification here that challenges the very goal of the process.

We all assume (myself included up to this point) that the goal is continuous process improvement.

Maybe it is.

But we also say it is about developing people.

Processes come and go with new technology, new products, reorganizations, etc. The people are the only constant.

Let me float this idea out there –

How would your continuous improvement process change if you thought of its  primary objective as continuously improving the capability of your people?

Process improvement would be a vehicle for people development. In effect, your success at process improvement would be an indicator of how well you were developing people.

To paraphrase a common expression, process improvement is the shadow of how well you develop your people.

That would mean if your process of continuous improvement is targeted at anything other than the capability of people, you are trying to move a shadow by pushing on it.

Its about the people.



7 Replies to “Continuously Improving”

  1. Every process improvement I have been involved in is mostly about manipulating people. By “manipulate” I really mean influence and train. You ask; “How would your continuous improvement process change if you thought of its primary objective as continuously improving the capability of your people?” Well, it has changed for the better and I will now do a better job by you simply asking this question.

    Mark, as I walk the road of improvement you often shine a light to direct my path.
    Sometimes you wound me with your words. You have done both here with this post.
    I hope I can turn my injury into wisdom, and then into action.

  2. Developing people and process should be done hand-in-hand it is the continuous improvement process.

    I believe the largest problem is the “short term memory” companies have. If processes are not doucmented as to WHY the changes were made to improve the process and the ramifications if the documented process is not followed the “Process” will produce Cr_p and the company will have to go thru a learning curve to regain its previous effeciency.

  3. That’s exactly the insight I had when reading “Toyota Culture” in the first 10 pages or so.

    Process improvement allows processes to reveal problems to be solved by People. This develops (improves) people which in turns learn and then improve back the process to be able to reveal further subtle problems. Which would further be tackled by People.

    It’s a system between process and people, linked by problems to be solved (process>people) and improvements (people>process) that forms a virtuous circle. But like any system in action, it needs energy to function: that of management to constantly have that system running.

    Otherwise it stops.

    1. Exactly. The “ah-ha” I had when preparing a presentation on the cultural aspects of continuous improvement (and how to create it) was that “continuous improvement” as a concept was (or should be – to Tom’s point) applied to people first and foremost.

      Of course they have to be developed in the right way, to work on the right things, but ultimately the focus on people is what makes these principles universally applicable.

      Think about how much energy (and marketing) is spent trying to differentiate tool sets, and stratify tools by process type. All of that reflects a process-focused, rather than people focused, mindset. Given the right “true north” and the correct approach for coaching, improvement becomes universal.

  4. Mark,

    Toyota’s philosophy has always been that if you hire the right kind of people, then continuously improve them, they will continuously improve the business. Time after time they’ve shown this to be true because numerous smart people are far better than a few smart people.

    Many other companies have a very different view of people though. They feel people are a variable expense and any opportunity to reduce “headcount” is a good thing for the business and the shareholders. Each person is simply “a pair of hands.” This in turn leads to very little incentive to invest money in improving the people. Oddly enough, this also leads to businesses that don’t improve as steadily (or for as long) as Toyota. This also highlights the long term view Toyota uses vs. the short term view so many other companies use.


  5. I just had a thought that proves the “people first” point beyond a shadow of a doubt. Imagine a manufacturing plant comprised of nothing but 100 robots. Robots that are programmed to product a product. And in this plant there is only one employee; the person who programs the robots.

    Now suppose the company owner wanted to continually improve the process. The only way to improve the process is to modify the programs on some or all of the robots. In this case wouldn’t continuous improvement still be a function of people first? Specifically the owner must train the robot programmer to embrace continuous improvement.

  6. I have enjoyed all the articles I have read and their comments.
    I was moved to state the following…that management in general (some have changed but only a few) has to change the way they view their workers, which is now apparently very obvious. I breifly worked for IBM in the states and I also work for Dunlop in Europe, and at those times, IBM made special individual monetarily awards plus recognition for any improvements suggested by employees and implemented by IBM (a formula was used) and in Dunlop that was team profit sharing for departments etc. (another formula used) plus in general all employees in good standing got a variety of perks, lont term benefits, etc.
    What is meant by this…employees think and are smarter than robots….and they keep asking Whats In It For Me, the same as the the shareholders and other Executives.
    So after an organization invests in training and upgrading the work crews…programers, assembly line workers or technicians, now that they are train ..or you going to push them out?
    Where does Human Resources and other Performance Enhancement Training Depts. come in and influence and suggest significant Perks and benefits? Of course, this is also part of life, and that is how spin off companies are created, or why Unions are formed, (which into profits, rememger it only takes, 3 or 4 to petition for a Union, if I remember correctly) etc..Question is What is the Life Cycle of your company? What are you/they doing to elongate it,or to just avoid headaches?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.