From doing to being: embedding a culture of continuous improvement

By Chris Sheryn

When talking to organisations about their desire to embed a culture of Lean continuous improvement (CI), they often express frustration around being unable to make a perfectly sound CI strategy come to life and stick in the operation. They struggle to shift the organisational mindset from one that does improvement as a project to one that is continuously improving as part of BAU.

So, how can operational leaders close this ‘doing-being gap’ and successfully embed continuous improvement? For us, it starts with two questions:

1.  What game are you playing?
2.  How can you harness the systems that shape and drive CI behaviours?

The game

In his 1986 seminal work on game theory, Finite and Infinite Games, James Carse, Professor Emeritus of history and literature of religion at New York University, distinguishes between the two types of games.

Finite games, like football, cricket and hockey, have defined rules and a beginning and end. The objective of these games is to finish – to win. Improvement projects are similar, with strict boundaries, such as time, resource and scope, and an objective to complete and stop.

Infinite games, like rock climbing, piano playing and many successful businesses, have no boundaries and fluid rules, and continue even as the players change. The objective of these games is to keep the game going. CI embraces this principle.

To embed CI, organisations should create an infinite game where the players (everyone in the business) are constantly thinking, experimenting and collaborating in pursuit of improvements. Despite this, organisations often deploy the strategies of a finite game to drive improvements – they focus on individual performance and the pursuit of an extrinsic reward (most commonly monetary), and rely too much on training and tools that, while essential, are insufficient to embed a culture of CI.

So, what can leaders do to create an infinite CI game?

The systems

In any operation seeking to embed a CI culture, it’s valuable to recognise that there are two systems at play that leaders must influence and direct.

There’s a highly visible Objective System of processes, routines, and tools that provides direction, consistency and control. And there’s an invisible Social System of stories, conversations and beliefs that describes and shapes ‘how things get done around here’. Operations that have a mixture of old hands and new recruits will have seen this Social System in action. The recruit seeks out the credible. You may see this with new starters who find an established colleague to interpret the complexity of the business. We cannot choose if they have a social system; they can only choose, in the pursuit of a embedded culture of CI, to employ it.

To be effective and sustainable, leaders must harness both systems while recognising that the social one is by far the more powerful. It’s the Social System that will shape the myriad decisions people and teams take every day across the operation.

For evidence of this, just look at the unprecedented levels of performance seen in many organisations during the COVID-19 pandemic. This has happened despite the absence of new processes, policies or operating models. Teams have focused on a specific purpose and have collaborated as never before to resolve issues quickly. The underlying Social System shaped the operational response as people talked and figured out how to get the work done.

To leverage these two systems, start by understanding and mobilising the social before aligning the objective.

Identify the real leaders of the operation

In every organisation there are de facto leaders – people who have been around a while and who are deeply credible. These are the people to whom the eyes turn to make sense of uncertainty or complexity, and they rarely have the word ‘leader’ in their job title. They’re the ones who will have the greatest influence on embedding continuous improvement as a way of being. Identifying and engaging this cadre of influencers is an essential first task.

Take an appreciative approach

While Lean has unquestionable value in finding problems and solving them, it’s important, when approaching the complexity of behavioural change at scale, to identify and amplify what’s already working well. Use the influencers in the business to find examples of good practice and use these to demonstrate that the necessary behaviours exist. The aim is to do more of what already works and build positive momentum.

Align the objective system

It’s vital to demonstrate credibility around the desire for people and teams to take sensible risks in pursuit of improvement. It’s all too easy to undermine this intent by retaining misaligned, objective measures and processes. (To test this – have a look at your performance boards. If specific behaviours are critical to sustainable success, are you measuring and managing them?). To avoid this conflict, it’s useful to take a ‘zero base’ approach to KPIs – to go back to the ambition, identify the factors critical to success, both tangible and behavioural, and draw out the lead and lag measures and evidence.

Play the game and exploit the system to embed a culture of continuous improvement

When seeking to embed a culture of CI in an operation, remember that the game should be infinite and there’s a significant role for the Social System. The ambition is to make the leap from improvement as an extra-curricular activity to a consistent mindset that drives all the behaviours required for true CI. And you can’t do that with a one-off change to the processes and tools of the Objective System.

About the authors

Chris Sheryn PA operational excellence expert

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