Instilling a continuous improvement (CI) mindset requires a change in thoughts and practices of people in an organization. To enable these changes, managers need to have the skill and knowledge to understand culture of the organization. A good respect of culture will help the managers on how to change the behaviors that will support the implementation of Continuous Improvement Strategy.
Key Factors of Continuous Improvement
An organization that supports the Continuous Improvement strategy will have some following key principles in their culture.
- Customer Value focused
- Continually engaged with customers to understand their needs in a changing environment.
- Process focused that will lead to organizational effectiveness
- Mistakes accepted as a part of learning process
- Every level of the organization involved in some form of improvement activities.
- Performance Improvement is derived from handling management systems and processes
A Simple Understanding of Organizational Culture
An organizational culture can be divided into three levels (Edgar H. Schein).
Level 1 which is an outward view of culture related to behavior. This is also called as artifacts. Artifacts include physical arrangement in the organization, language used, communication styles, slogans, traditions and etc. This level of culture is easily observable by anyone.
Level 2 is an inward view of culture. This relates to values and beliefs in the organization. This is not easily observable.
Level 3 is also an inward view of culture. This is the deepest level of culture. At this level organic members make assumptions of certain basic actions in the company that is accepted as unquestionable truth about how things work. At this level most of the actions will be derived from a sub-conscious mind. In most cases values and beliefs that have been well grounded will be turned into an assumption.
Why Lack of Understanding of Culture Can Lead to Failure
It is important for the manager to understand that the three levels are inter-related and the relationship is very dynamic. Each level influences the others. But unfortunately most Continuous improvement strategy attempts to manage change at Level 1 through policies, statement of intent and etc … A change that is focused on surface level is doomed to fail from the start.
It is important to understand that the outward behavior may not represent the real belief or assumption held by the people
As an example:
A CEO of large organization militants all the key people to communicate his intention of embarking on a Continuous Improvement strategy that will bring improved revenue to the company and will indirectly increase the company to a higher level. This growth means many opportunities for the people in the organization. He sets a working committee and launch buzz words and posters.
After a few months into the initiatives, he has not seen the response or the reaction he was expecting from the employees. He started asking asking around what has gone missing in the strategy. He found out that this is not the first time the organization has launched this strategy. For many people they have heard that before and this will also go away just like the previous initiative. It is a generally assumed that management will initiate something and after couple of months it will see a natural death. It is just like before. Previously, the organization has embarked on suggestion scheme and later followed by quality circles. Both of this did not survive for long.
How the CEO could have done differently? He could talk to some key people at different levels and try to understand what is actually running in their mind. This is especially true when implementing initiatives that will change the way things are done. Or he could have commissioned an independent study on the above, if he thinks people might not want to share the truth with him. Based on the findings he will be able to strategies his communication methods by also addressing some of the assumptions that is already deep-roaming in the mind of the people.
Another example of failure is when the value of the company to “Trust and Respect of People” is always disputed with micro-managing of sub-ordinates by managers. This will lead to mistrust of the people on what the management is saying and what they actually do, which contradicts with one another. Overtime, people will assume that whatever the management says will be opposed to that.
In conclusion, a manager trying to introduce new initiatives needs to have a clear understanding of how organizational culture developments and what prompts people to have the way they have. The manager also needs to understand if the setting of the organization is aligned to the values it is pursuing. A strong value in quality should be reflected in the way importance is given to quality principles.
Addressing all 3 level of culture in change initiatives will have a higher chance of success.