What defines a continuous improvement culture

The service techs at my local auto repair shop earn my respect during every visit. “Hello, Dr. Rice,” they say as they’ve become familiar with both my face and my Nissan crossover over the years. “Same as usual?” they ask as I pop the hood and they immediately dive underneath. From that point until they finish – no more than 10 minutes later – the bay echoes with a series of verbal exchanges. Commands are barked. Confirmations are barked back. Boxes on their digital checklist are ticked off one after the next. The hood is closed then rubbed shiny with a chamois cloth. They usually have me ready to roll before the free coffee has time to cool. Receipt in one hand. Satisfaction survey in the other. While it’s always returned with a perfect score, they always ask how their service could improve. Hazelnut flavoring for the coffee, maybe?

When it comes to continuous improvement initiatives in the manufacturing sector, culture is often the attribute that ultimately dictates success versus failure. Big company or small company – culture decides who ends up on top. Manufacturers that have a strong culture of continuous process improvement are usually the same ones we refer to as “world-class.” From top to bottom, they are committed to routinely reassessing their procedures and looking for ways to improve. Their philosophy of excellence applies equally to production and maintenance procedures as it does to quality control and safety processes.

Having performed projects at more than a hundred plants, I’ve uncovered a few cultural truths that seem to separate the top performers from everyone else…and I have data to back up my list:


While this is hardly a surprise, it’s worth stating the obvious: Staff who are given proper training and equipped with the right tools tend to do a better job than those who lack them. Indeed, best-in-class manufacturers view training as an ongoing investment – not just a one-time event that occurs during orientation. As far as tools are concerned, more often than not, the market leaders are doing one of two things: 1) they are putting the latest technologies to work, or 2) they are collaborating with technology vendors to jointly develop the next generation of capabilities. Training and technology are both investments in future excellence.

According to the Association for Talent Development, companies that offer comprehensive training programs enjoy a 24% higher profit margin than those that spend less.What’s more, a recent Dale Carnegie survey determined that companies with trained and engaged employees outperform their competition from a productivity standpoint by as much as 202%.


That pesky old mantra still holds true: What gets measured gets managed. Many of the best-performing manufacturers make certain that goals are both clearly set and publicly displayed. Production output goals. Quality or defect goals. Safety goals. When the objectives are clear and made visible, staff are constantly reminded of how their work contributes to individual as well as group success. They know what matters and that added awareness tends to drive the right behavior. To commit to continuous improvement means to publicize goals front and center for everyone to see.

Since OSHA’s push for safety signage and education, the organization has documented a 66% decrease in the number of work-related fatalities and a 67% decrease in occupational injuries and illnesses in the U.S.


Failing to either follow procedures or meet goals should have consequences. It certainly does at my company. Leaders in manufacturing consistently hold individual staff and/or whole plants accountable when they don’t follow documented processes or meet objectives. While failure shouldn’t necessarily mean that someone is fired, it should at a minimum mean that the individual is held responsible and steps are taken to avoid future mishaps. On the flip side, success should also be recognized and rewarded. What some may find interesting is that even seemingly trivial perks associated with meeting goals can be highly effective. For instance, a monthly barbecue for staff when the plant meets a goal is a great way of building teamwork and reinforcing a culture of success. Among the keys to accountability are accurate reporting, regular communication, and rewards for the best achievers.


Staff commit to continuous improvement when they view it as a legitimate program supported throughout the organization – from top to bottom.There’s somewhat of a ‘virtuous cycle’ here. It starts with bringing staff on board who willingly subscribe to a performance-driven culture of as part of the hiring process. And as staff experience the company’s ongoing commitment to training and technology, they seem to worry less about the goals that grow each year or being held accountable. That in turn increases demand for new job postings and assures that the best candidates are on boarded. Around and around they go.

According to a study published in 2013 by Harvard Business Review companies with engaged employees reported 48% fewer safety incidents and 41% fewer quality defects. The study defined engagement as: People want to come to work, understand their jobs, and know how their work contributes to the success of the organization.

We live in the age of running lean. Like you, I read trade journals that routinely advocate for increased utilization of technology as a means of operating plants more efficiently. Heck – I lead a team of engineers and programmers who developed a suite of monitoring, diagnostic, and optimization solutions. When prospects ask what makes for a successful implementation, the answer is simple: culture. While market forces are pushing manufacturers toward lean operations, it’s the individuals and teams that possess a continuous improvement mindset that win time and time again. Not settling for today’s perfect customer survey score is what sets them apart. That, and maybe some hazelnut flavoring.