Get leadership on board before launching a continuous improvement ship

By Donna Outram

Continuous improvement (CI) has been likened to the holy grail of business success. While it can be extremely challenging, when continuous improvement is truly embedded into the culture of an organisation, it can fuel competitive advantage, customer delight and increased profitability. 

Much of my work takes me into businesses that are on a quest to embed continuous improvement. Culture, process, and a tool to easily manage processes and process improvement are all critical parts of that. I’ve seen firsthand the businesses that have been successful in achieving a culture of continuous improvement, and those who are simply paying it lip service.

The role of leadership endorsement cannot be stressed enough

Achieving true continuous improvement comes down to the leadership team, and whether they’re really behind the organisation’s efforts, or whether overtly or subtly, they prefer to stick with the status quo. 

That message came through loud and clear in this year’s CI Forum from a range of speakers – leadership buy-in is the key to continuous improvement

In his keynote, Nintex Promapp CEO Ivan Seselj highlighted some of the root causes of C-suite disinterest in continuous improvement: some simply don’t care, preferring to focus on what they see as bigger battles, and of course, the bottom line. That means they haven’t invested in continuous improvement practices, and don’t see the enormous benefit it can deliver.

Ivan referred to a paper from The Harvard Business Review that suggests we may have badly underestimated the benefit of core management practices, and underestimated the investment needed to strengthen them. The paper’s authors, Raffaella Sadun, Nicholas Bloom and John Van Reenan write: "Neither great leadership nor brilliant strategy matters without operational excellence."


How to get the C-Suite on board

Sometimes you get lucky and leadership is already on board the continuous improvement ship. For many, that won’t be the case, but there are plenty of proactive things you can do to get them on board. A lot of this boils down to ensuring you demonstrate the value of continuous improvement to the leadership team.

Here are 5 things you can do:


1. When you make a difference, shout it from the roof tops

If you’re not seeing the value, it’s hard to get on board with a new way of working. That may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how often continuous improvement champions just assume people will see the results when they happen. Making the effort to highlight the benefits and progress you’ve made will mean your leadership team is truly aware of what you’re doing and how you’re adding value. Linking that progress to the business’s strategic goals and objectives will make it particularly compelling. This can come in the form of incidental conversations in the kitchen, but should also be included more formally, in meetings, reports and presentations. 

2. Appoint a process sponsor

Driving a real focus on continuous improvement takes effort. By appointing a process sponsor you can share the load. They’ll help ensure improvements are clearly connected to your company’s overall strategy, and gather and share feedback on status reports with the necessary stakeholders. 

3. Use the customer perspective as the primary driver for improvement

Build your continuous improvement plan around your customer – what they want and need most (within reason!) – and your improvements will make immediate, tangible impacts on your bottom line, and other metrics such as NPS score and retention. According to Nina Muhleisen, Head of World Class Delivery at ANZ Bank, Melbourne who spoke at the CI Forum, connecting this improvement to the work you’ve been doing, backed by the numbers, is a simple way of getting senior leadership on board. 

4. Get your teams clear on the processes 

Producing tangible benefits for the organisation means new ways of working must genuinely be put into practice – they can’t be left buried in process manuals saved somewhere on the shared drive. That means working with a system that makes it easy for your teams to build small, incremental process improvements into their day-to-day work. That system must be easy to review and update, and must be also be accessible and simple enough so that teams refer to it every day. 

5. Connect with like-minded colleagues 

If you look carefully, you’ll spot the allies in your business – the ones who share your passion for continuous improvement. Connect with them, unofficially and formally, and they will help you build energy and momentum. 

We collated this list of the top 10 ways to create and retain engagement, based on the feedback from our clients. My three favourite picks include:

  1. Process management can be fun 
    Appeal to people’s competitive instincts and hold competitions both within teams and across the organisation.
  1. Integrate Nintex Promapp into daily activities
    Make it the norm, by embedding process information into everyday activities and other business systems (i.e. your intranet). 
  1. We’re all susceptible to a little bribery
    If all else fails, a small incentive may be all it takes to drive motivation and participation.

Steering your organisation to success  

Any business that wants to succeed in the long term must work towards embedding a culture of improvement. Without it, an organisation must rely only on cost-cutting – an approach that quickly reaches it limit. 

Conversely, improving your systems sets an organisation up for future growth and prosperity. It reduces costs with better efficiency and efficacy, particularly through continuous improvement efforts that are tangible and have the customer journey at the heart.

That requires facing up to the things that are holding the organisation back which, as I see every day in my conversations with businesses, can be a gruelling process, particularly for senior leadership

Help them see the incredible rewards that await those brave enough to look at what’s wrong, and you’ll be well on your way to a business with continuous improvement at its heart.

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