Why Continuous Improvement Groups Can Do More Harm than Good

Eric Bigelow

As strange as it may sound, I believe that continuous improvement (CI) culture is something that many organizations resist without realizing it. Sometimes it is not a mountain to climb but an anthill to step over.

Culture is defined as integrated knowledge, belief and behavior; a set of shared attitudes, values, goals and practices that characterizes an organization. If an organization lays the foundation for the employees to embrace each of these examples, it can result in harmony and progression. It can eliminate finger-pointing, develop a balanced scorecard, and produce a creative and productive working environment.

One mistake many organizations make is the implementation of a “CI group.” This is a group of employees who explore the shop floor, seeking improvement opportunities. It is somewhat respectable when organizations implement such a group because they are making an effort toward CI, but assigning a group to kaizen full time demonstrates little confidence in lean methodologies and shows no loyalty in constructing a true CI culture.

These CI groups more often than not harm organizations because they assume the responsibilities of the process owner, which slows down development. They can also create inner turmoil between departments and turbulence in the improvement process. This pushes the organization further from a healthy CI culture.

In addition, the improvements implemented by the CI group are not sustainable in most cases. The process owner has surrendered his or her ownership, resulting in resistance to change that he or she did not implement.

It’s comparable to someone else entering your home and rearranging your living room furniture. You might leave it that way for a day or so, but eventually you would either move everything back the way it was or rearrange it in a different way altogether. It could be because you were not fond of the arrangement or were uncomfortable with the change. What it really boils down to is that you were not part of the concept development or the decision-making process.

It is painful for some organizations to admit the burdens of a CI group because they have devoted time and money to it. This is understandable, but as we all know, in order to fix a problem, you first have to admit that there is one.

The CI group is not a bad idea. In fact, such activities can be extremely valuable in developing a continuous improvement culture. It’s their job duties and assignments that can turn them into a harmful entity within the organization. This is where CI-driven managers have to be careful and use the group strategically.

Instead of assigning group members to kaizen, it would be advantageous to center their efforts on lean education. The CI group members should act as consultants and use their expertise to guide improvement efforts throughout the organization. They should coach and train the shop-floor personnel as well as the process owners.

The owners (shop-floor personnel, leads, supervisors, engineers, etc.) should be the champions when improving their processes. A member of the CI group should be assigned to assist and guide them in the lean direction. This way, the process owner is learning lean methodologies and applying them in his or her projects. It will sanction much more sustainable changes and stimulate the owner, who will see firsthand the results that can be achieved with lean.

Once everyone understands what CI is and how to apply it, the CI group should focus on improving the lean tools and analytical procedures. After all, the organization’s lean process should, in itself, be a lean process.

The group’s input and talent should not stop there. It would also be beneficial to allow group members to assist in rewriting the organization’s policies and practices to ensure that lean permeates throughout the organization’s rules and decision-making.

If you have a CI group at your organization, assigning these responsibilities to them will progress the organization’s continuous improvement culture and provide sustainable, positive change. It will enlighten and encourage everyone to get involved with lean.

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About the Author

Eric Bigelow is an industrial engineer and continuous improvement professional. He is currently a lean coordinator located in Spirit Lake, Iowa. He has trained numerous individuals in lean manuf...