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The 5 Steps to Launching a Continuous Improvement Program

Posted on February 27, 2015

By all measures, WalMart is enormous. Currently ranked as the largest company in the world based on revenue, it is also the world’s largest private employer with over two million employees.

One of the ways Walmart has stayed ahead of the competition is through their creation of a corporate culture supporting “continuous improvement.” Walmart is always tinkering with new ideas to foster more sales and be more efficient. Is it possible to set up a similar culture in your company?

Continuous Improvement and Employee Suggestions

Continuous improvement is the process of making small incremental changes to improve efficiency. This is does not involve drastic overhauls but rather involves fixating on the small details that give your company a competitive edge.

This business philosophy comes from a Japanese concept known as Kaizen. Used at Toyota with great success, it was also briefly incorporated into GM production methods and delivered similar outstanding results before being scrapped. Toyota went on to become the world's largest auto manufacturer while GM declared bankruptcy.

Collecting ideas from employees in an employee suggestion program is one of the best ways to learn what those small changes should be. In fact, employee suggestion programs (ESPs) and continuous improvement go hand in hand.

A number of organizations have attempted to start continuous improvement and employee suggestion programs, but have seen less than stellar results. To have a successful program, the program has to be aligned with a corporate-wide cultural shift.

These five steps can help you on the way to continuous improvement and employee suggestion program success, starting with a top down approach.

1. Executive Management Gets Involved

This is the most crucial step. Support and encouragement from an organization’s leadership team is cited as the number one success factor of a continuous improvement initiative.

How it's done: Kick off your continuous improvement efforts with people in the C-suite. Executives need tell their employees why new improvements are important to the company and why they will make for a happier work environment. In terms of revenue, happy employees are loyal and productive employees.

2. Start Small

Starting small is the best approach if you’re an organization new to continuous improvement. Companies that have seen success start with smaller-scale pilot projects before getting the entire organization involved.

These pilot programs are fully invested in tracking execution and the benefits of the improvements. The data and lessons from these early programs can lead to larger initiatives.

How it's done: Slow down. You don’t have to overhaul your entire company to get this right. Start the continuous improvement program off in a small way - limit it to just one office or just one department. Work out the kinks in the new process in a small scale.

3. Encourage Participation Importance

Employees are the bread and butter of making a continuous improvement culture successful. Solicit ideas from your team members and encourage them to share by rewarding and recognizing them accordingly.

Make sure to implement selected ideas as soon as possible. This shows employees that you're serious about making improvements. Even if an idea doesn't fit the bill, giving employees feedback on anything they submit is vital to sustain the process of continuous improvement.

How it's done: Everybody has that one little thing that annoys them about the way their company works. You can frame it this way: now is finally the chance for employees to speak up about where the company needs to improve. Hate that we waste electricity in unused rooms? No problem, motion detected light switches it is!

4. Make Room for Mistakes

When it comes to continuous improvement, you might not get it right on the first try every time. There needs to be a place for trial and error when developing new processes. Make it safe to fail and try new ways of marketing the program, organizing it and positioning it the organization. People won’t offer ideas for improvements if your company punishes those that don’t have it perfect the first time around.

How it's done: Most projects go through different edits and versions before the ideal one is completed. (Ask us how many times we rewrote our eBook on the subject.) The same holds true for any type of innovation or process improvement. Just because one idea didn’t pan out the way it was supposed doesn’t mean that the problem it was trying to fix isn’t real. Once a problem has been defined let your employees solve it.

5. Show the Difference

Continuous improvement often calls for small, incremental changes. Instead of having some sort of drastic overhaul, these changes can be easily processed by an employee and become part of their daily routine. This can be both good and bad. The good part is that it is easy to get people onboard with process improvement. The bad part is that sometimes employees can forget about the previous process. Show how continuous improvement is helping your company, and helping employees be fully invested.

How its done: Host a regular review showing what you used to do so your employees can see how far you have come with your improvement processes. When you are transparent with how successful your program is then employees will be more inspired to contribute.

It may seem like it will take a while to see effects from your culture shift. Start by addressing your team and be transparent with your goals for continuous improvement efforts. That way everyone is on the same page and has the common goal in mind. Following these five steps in an incremental fashion will guarantee your program will be a success.

Have you used continuous improvement in your company culture? Let us know how it went on Twitter: @_Vocoli

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