"Continuous Improvement": Why is it so difficult?

In my experience in more than 100 organizations in North America and Europe, a consistent focus of energy has been on continuous improvement. Countless resources - time, money, programs, people - are devoted to continuous improvement efforts with limited, if any, real long-term impact on organizational performance.

I suggest that one of the major causes for short-term, at best, results can be summed up in one term - societal conditioning.

All of us are conditioned from childhood to "make an A". From infancy we are made aware of a fixed goal or measure that says we have done what is expected of us; we have achieved something that merits a reward. Sometimes the reward could well be the absence of a penalty or negative.

This conditioning takes the form in early childhood of "being a good little boy or girl". Later as we enter school, we begin getting recognition by way of gold stars or "happy faces" on our work.

As our formal schooling progresses, our teachers tell us "up front" what is required to "get an A". The syllabus makes clear what is required of us. If they don't tell us, we ask! We strive for whatever level of reward we want - and we get it.

In our social interactions, there are very clear expectations of us - from our parents/elders, siblings, and peers. Again, we are made aware of what is and is not "in". Our parents and/or other elders made very clear - in very concrete terms - what is expected of us and the rewards and penalties for attainment or failure of attainment?

Throughout our lives we are well aware of what is required of us. Usually these standards are imposed upon us with little or no involvement or true influence on the establishment of the standards of conduct expected of us.

As we enter the workforce, organizations are quick to tell us what is expected. Whether these standards of conduct are imparted through a formal orientation program; by way of a supervisor or manager; by way of a formal skill training program; or, by others in authority we are advised early and usually repeatedly of "the way things are done around here".

Elaborate codes of conduct or work rules or union contracts outline what is and is not satisfactory conduct, behavior and performance. Again, these norms are very concrete, specific, and virtually always couched in as objective terms as possible.

Beyond all the formal efforts to let us know what is expected, the reality we encounter when we actually become "one of the group" is usually different. Our fellow employees let us know fairly quickly "the way things are really done around here".

The nature of "standards of conduct"

All of us, at one time or another, have been indoctrinated regarding standards of conduct or expectations of performance. While many of these standards or expectations may well be appropriate, that is not the point of this discussion.

These standards are usually developed and imposed on us with little or no input from us. Additionally, we seldom are educated on the need for a particular measure or standard nor are we informed of the "how" behind its establishment. If we are given the background or reasons behind these expectations, they are normally couched in terms like:
  • "we've always done it this way"
  • "this has proven to be the best way to get along"
  • "this is good for the company and what's good for the company is good for its employees".


To make matters worse, without exception in my experience, people do not hear that a measure or standard is a measure or standard ,b>for the present situation only! We hear the standard as the end-all, be-all of effectiveness.

Whatever standards of conduct or performance expectations and regardless of their appropriateness, I suggest that the existence of these established standards are simultaneously the greatest barrier to continuous improvement and, potentially, the greatest re-enforcer of continuous improvement.

The greatest single deterrent to continuous improvement is the static or fixed image people hold of standards due to their enculturation. After all, we know what to do to get our "A" because the requirements to "make an A" don't change. That's what fraternity files of old tests are all about! If we achieve some static standard and then someone says "but we must do better" we feel betrayed at best.

Other reactions range from "don't you know what the hell you want" to "your raising my standard and that isn't fair" to "every time I do a good job, all my boss does is expect me to do more". Reality!

We live in a world in which change - at times occurring at warp speed - is a fact of life. One needs to only consider the enormity of change in just the last twenty years - the Berlin Wall, Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Enron, World Com, Martha Stewart, etc.- to begin grasp the magnitude and pace of change that must be not only accommodated but managed? and led!

Continuous improvement in meeting the needs of our "customers" (cost, quality, delivery, market share, customer satisfaction and service, etc.), in a global economy while meeting the needs of all the stakeholders of the enterprise, (including the people who do the work) is the absolute requirement of organizations that will survive. In other words, continuous improvement is JOB 1!

This task is difficult enough to even contemplate but appears to be truly impossible in light of the effect that our conditioning has had on all of us regarding our image of standards as being fixed or static.

What to do!
a.Start by examining what is presently measured, recognized and rewarded in your organization. The only measures that really count are those that are recognized and rewarded. They say more about what your organization expects of people than all the vision statements, company philosophy pronouncements, or codes of conduct will ever accomplish.

  Do these measures truly reflect the actions and behaviors you wish employees to demonstrate? Are you rewarding the actions and behaviors that are essential to your organization's continued effectiveness? The old adage "hell is getting what you pray for" seems appropriate here.

b.Examine - impartially and objectively - what employees think is measured, recognized and rewarded. What really counts? What are the "bogies" out in the workplace that are the real standards for performance?

c.Develop - with as much input and involvement as possible from all employees - the benchmarks for interim measurement of progress and effectiveness. What measures should be used? Why? How are they determined and calculated? What aspect(s) of Job 1 does these benchmarks purport to measure?

d.In the process of accomplishing c, openly discuss with as much involvement as possible how measures, standards, etc. must and must not be used in the future in order that they are seen as data collection points along a continuous process of improvement and change. Standards and measures should, in the future, be viewed as vehicles to determine what steps should be taken to continue to improve; milestones along the continuous improvement highway.

 Help employees understand that the reason for continuous improvement is very simple - survival! Your customers demand continuous improvement in costs, quality, delivery, innovation, etc. or they will simply go somewhere else!

e.Determine an overall, integrated process for moving standards and measures from fixed end states to milestones for continuous improvement.

f.Take action. Old notions of recognition, rewards, compensation, etc. will have to be discarded. Yesterday's goals must become tomorrow's standards. Human behavior must be recognized and rewarded on the basis of the process of movement towards goals or benchmarks rather than upon attainment of a goal.

Attainment of goals or benchmarks must become temporary rest stops and points of celebration as we move forward not as a final resting place.