We’ve all seen our share of continuous improvement initiatives that fail when leadership seemed to only be interested in supporting the effort with lip service and not much else. We have also seen improvement initiatives fail, or run aground even when top leadership gave every appearance of being committed. Many good leaders have been thrown under the bus when we paint them all with the same brush of lack of commitment.
Most continuous improvement programs fail to create any positive impact because of misunderstanding of the role of such programs, lack of focus in the deployment of resources, and misalignment of the goals and rewards of performance improvement.
Does Leadership Really Understand the Continuous Improvement Challenge?
In most cases, the continuous improvement push comes from the executive level and is pushed down through the organization. This is fine as long as executives understand that effective programs are not limited to deploying problem-solving and process-improvement techniques. They require a major cultural shift. These programs take time, resources and direct involvement from all levels of the organization. Leadership must display clear commitment to continuous improvement, follow up on the progress in implementing the program, and hold people accountable for their performance.
The misalignment between the goals and rewards of continuous improvement programs also plays a major role in the inefficient use of the continuous improvement capabilities. Employees who go through Lean Six Sigma training are rewarded based on their attainment of different certification levels rather than on the impacts resulting from the improvement projects they lead. In addition to choosing simple projects to attain the desired certification levels, most employees have no incentives to start any further projects to improve performance.
Successful lean implementations start with a clear view of company strategy and the role of lean in supporting the continuous improvement strategy. If leadership doesn’t have that clear view, no matter how committed they are initially to implementing tools and methods, they will lose that commitment and the energy that goes with it.