Improvement Discontinued

The signs of an impressive continuous improvement (CI) culture were plentiful. Walls of the common areas were adorned with A3 problem solving papers and visual management boards were scattered across the manufacturing floor. Planning rooms displayed a flurry of outputs from Kaizen events, with sticky notes and process maps extending from wall to wall.

Senior leaders were also invested. They were well versed in the methodology themselves and structured both the organization and shop floor to optimize product flow. They recruited CI experts for internal consultation and training.

Despite these impressive steps, the CI initiative appeared to be stalling. Closer inspection of the A3 papers revealed dates long since passed. Despite being helpful, visual management boards had fallen out of use by supervisors who struggled to keep up with more urgent day-to-day demands. Frontline employees had little to no knowledge of CI concepts, and many internal champions had left the company and were not replaced. On paper, the destination was clear and the path had been charted. On the floor, maintaining forward progress along that path was easier said than done. Frustration grew, morale sank, and people resigned, disillusioned by well-intentioned efforts which did not seem to produce the results that were anticipated. 

If any elements of the scenario above sound familiar, you are not alone. Research suggests that most CI initiatives in manufacturing fail or fall short of their targets. It is estimated that the failure rate is about 60% for Six Sigma implementations in manufacturing.

One factor that contributes to failure is a poor organizational culture before implementation. Initiatives are often launched within work cultures that are not prepared for the change. If people view the initiative as too great of a departure from current ways, this can hamper efforts before even getting started. Continuous improvement initiatives are not solutions to a negative culture, rather, they require the right culture to take root and deliver results.

Another theme that often leads to failure is a lack of employee involvement during implementation. Initiatives often seek to empower employees to identify and solve problems on their own. This requires increased levels of effort and involvement from employees across all levels of the organization. Without good relationships and management support, frontline employees can hear this as an ask for more work with no upside to them.

Since culture and involvement are both fundamentally about day-to-day behavior, an understanding of behavioral science can help create the conditions that make success more likely. Before launching a CI initiative, the existing culture should be assessed for implementation readiness. Patterns of behavior that represent barriers to successful adoption can then be identified and improved before the launch of the initiative.

Behavioral science tells us that leaders who manage primarily via negative reinforcement (the default approach) typically get just enough effort from their teams to get by. Under those conditions, employees will be reluctant to go out of their way to identify and capitalize on opportunities for improvement. By learning how to leverage more positive reinforcement in their daily interactions, leaders can cultivate an environment where employees want to give their best. Employees will feel more motivated to get and stay involved once they experience the benefits that CI initiatives can bring to their work.

Whether you are planning a new continuous improvement initiative or have had one in place for years, arming your team with an understanding of the science behind the practices will help you avoid common pitfalls and accelerate improvement.

Posted by Brian Molina, Ph.D.

Brian has been in the field of Behavioral Science for over 8 years. He has helped organizations improve their operations and service delivery by assessing performance and implementing learning and performance solutions to drive desired outcomes. He has broad experience partnering with business, non-profit, and public sector entities.