3 Traps to Avoid in Building a Continual Improvement Culture

Jeff Cole
Contributor: Jeff Cole
Posted: 05/05/2017


In 1966, the ABC television network did something unforgivingly cruel to small children around the USA. It broadcast Batman on Tuesdays and Thursdays. That in itself wasn’t bad – the cruel part was every Tuesday evening Batman got caught in some kind of trap and we had to wait until Thursday to see how he got out. This led to many sleepless Tuesday nights and Wednesday morning playground summits to determine what we could do to help our heroes. In short, my little friends and I grew up hating traps. This month, we reach into the process improvement utility belt to help you avoid three common traps in building your continual improvement (CI) culture.

Trap 1:  Not actively architecting your culture     

Culture is the shared beliefs behaviors and assumptions of an organization and it is a powerful force – like an invisible raging river flowing through the organization. Like a river, a culture left alone will follow the path of least resistance digging itself ever deeper. It’s easy to assume that you can’t control that force.   

Solution:  You do have a choice – either you can leave it alone and let it evolve (or “devolve”), or you can be an architect of your culture and design it. Consider a Venn diagram of two intersecting circles – in one you have the cultural attributes that would need to be in place for your desired culture.  In the other you have your current cultural attributes.    The secret is that you don’t turn this battleship of a culture all at once on a dime – your plan would address it at the attribute level.

Trap 2:  Assuming technical training in process improvement is enough

It’s easy to assume that if you march your workforce through some Lean training, the culture will automatically change itself and everyone will magically start behaving in a new way.  A little thing called “real life” often gets in the way, and the deeper your current culture has dug itself in, the harder it is to change. 

Solution:  While improvement training is a critical and needed aspect of a CI culture, ensuring that the thinking has changed and the behaviors have changed is even more important. Thus, take the effort you put into training the workers and double that effort in terms of working with management to ensure the right questions are being asked, the right behaviors reinforced, and the newly acquired skills are actually used on an ongoing basis. When a student walks out of a class, what will be the support system in place back at work to encourage, govern or even mandate that they put into practice what they learned?   

Trap 3:  Not “plugging-in”

Some people focus on the visible artifacts of a culture – you will see posters about the latest CI initiative, results tacked on bulletin boards and everyone carrying little cards with their shared values.  While that is nice, culture drives the artifacts, not vice-versa.     It’s very easy to just address the ‘tip of the iceberg’ when working on a CI culture. If you simply staple a CI effort onto the back of a company, the first time it hits a speedbump that initiative comes flying off.  

Solution: You want CI woven into the fabric that is the culture of your organization.   Picture an old fashioned operator switchboard.   CI needs to be plugged into all aspects, not just a few of the most obvious.   Linkage back to strategic plans, individual performance appraisals, communication systems, IT systems, policies, management briefings, meeting agendas, decision criteria, etc. will be even more important to you than the next poster you slap up on the break room wall.

Now if you’ll excuse me, it appears the Joker just left a suspicious parcel on my porch. Alternatively, it may have been the Fed-Ex guy – their uniforms are kind of similar … Happy architecting!




Jeff Cole
Contributor: Jeff Cole
Posted: 05/05/2017


Nashville Airport Marriott, Nashville, TN
May 28 - 29, 2018
Hilton London Kensington, London, United Kingdom
June 18 - 19, 2018
The Hurlingham Club, London, United Kingdom
July 8 - 10, 2018