4 Strategies to Ignite a Culture of Continuous Improvement

By Emily Roner | Updated: 26 Sep, 2018

In today’s rapidly changing markets, companies must constantly innovate to survive. The most effective way to sustain growth is creating a progress-driven culture. Business leaders know this; however, many of their approaches for doing so are failing.

According to Deloitte, over 40% of companies fail at implementing their continuous improvement plans. Changing cultures is challenging and requires a personalized, nuanced approach to ensure employee behaviors shift in the long-term.

Here are four strategies to ignite and sustain a culture of continuous improvement.

1) Hold Everyone in Your Organization Accountable to Stretch Goals

The first steps in creating a continuous improvement culture are defining what improvement looks like and forming a structure to hold everyone accountable for achieving it. To do that, set stretch goals so everyone knows what they're working towards.

Keep in mind that improvement looks different for every employee. Instead of setting stretch goals from the top down, have direct supervisors collaborate with their teams to decide what each individual should work on.

For example, imagine you’re setting goals salespeople at the same level of seniority. The easiest route is to tell all of them to sell more. But, that approach can be ineffective because it doesn’t take into account individual capabilities.

One of the salespeople may consistently reach his/her target every month, but the customers they attract have a low retention rate. A better stretch goal for them is to increase retention by X%.

Another salesperson may only hit their targets sporadically but, they bring on customers who become loyal to your business. An ideal goal is to consistently reach a progressively rising sales goal since they’re skilled at acquiring fewer, high-quality customers.

Note: Before assigning stretch goals, make sure your team is prepared. According to research published in the Harvard Business Review, most initiatives fail because they lack two things:

  1. Adequate resources. You must give your employees enough funding, materials, etc. to account for inevitable mistakes that people will make as they strive to accomplish feats they’ve never done before.
  2. Positive morale. If your company is recovering from recent layoffs or another demoralizing event, your employees aren’t emotionally ready to pursue a culture of continuous improvement. Help your team achieve small wins and build back their confidence. Once morale is up, begin adding stretch goals.

You may face some frustration and resistance from employees when you initially shift to being extremely goal-oriented. To subdue adverse reactions, provide lots of encouragement and opportunities for small wins while your team adjusts.

Read More: How to Inspire Goal Commitment from Your Team

2) Incorporate Continuous Improvement into Your Recurring Meetings

According to an article published by the Australian Institute of Business, working towards specific goals has a powerful impact on performance if employees use them to guide their decisions. 

While some employees will take their stretch goals and independently develop systems, habits, and activities for achieving them, many will not. So, you need to create a structure to incorporate those behaviors into your culture.

The easiest way to create structure is to emphasize continuous improvement in your recurring meetings. Here’s how:

  • Break down each individual's stretch goals into milestones that correspond with your meeting cadence. Have everyone announce whether or not they met their benchmark and take additional actions to support those who didn’t.
  • Organize all of your meetings around your teams’ overarching stretch goals. Stop wasting time talking about generic updates that most people don’t care about. Instead, use your time to discuss refining goals and resolving setbacks.
  • Acknowledge significant progress made by employees. Stretch goals often take several quarters to complete. That’s a long time for employees to go without feeling a sense of accomplishment. Reserve a couple of minutes in your meetings to congratulate individuals who’ve reached a major milestone, mastered a new skill, or overcome a roadblock. Doing this reinforces the benefit of continuously striving to be better.

The more conversations about the improvement the people in your organizations have, the deeper it will be embedded into your culture.

3) Greet Failures with Curious Eyes

When you push people to pursue challenging projects, they will inevitably make mistakes which is great. According to Jeff Bezos, one of the most reliable signs of intelligent, innovative people is that they constantly acknowledge that they’re wrong and change their minds. 

While counter-intuitive, this reflective behavior compels continuous improvement. To reach stretch goals, people have to learn new skills and experiment with a variety of approaches, some of which will fail. If you train your employees to treat their mistakes as learning opportunities, they’ll emerge better equipped to excel at their jobs.

Here’s how to encourage your employees to greet failures with curious eyes:

  • Every time someone fails, make them report back to their managers with a few lessons learned and specific actions they are going to take as a result.
  • If your team doesn’t like debating or discussing failure, assign someone to be a devil’s advocate in your meetings. Tell them to question people’s assumptions and force everyone to consider more possibilities.
  • Display a positive attitude toward your employees as long as, in the aggregate, they’re improving. Leaders’ behaviors toward their subordinates have a significant impact on their morale. If you want your team to continue trying new things and striving for success, you have to remain supportive when they hit roadblocks.
  • Tell your team to give objective feedback. Focusing on observable errors and factual methods of improvement prevents people from feeling personally attacked and enables them to quickly recover from their mistakes.

It may take time to remove the stigma of failure but, once you do, your team will be much more resilient and innovative.

Read More: Want Your Team to Embrace Feedback? Improve Psychological Safety

4) Instill the Culture in Your New Hires

To sustain a culture of continuous improvement, you have to instill it into everyone you bring into your organization. The prime time to introduce these cultural expectations is during onboarding. 

Human Resources Today reports that having an informative, engaging onboarding process can increase retention by up to 25% and productivity by 11%. The training period for new employees is this powerful because it dictates how quickly and well people can adapt to your organization’s norms and start making progress.

Here’s how to instill an improvement-oriented mindset into new hires:

  • Emphasize your organization’s dedication to continuous, measurable improvement in all of your training materials and meetings. Embedding it into the entire process helps people see how your culture is incorporated into daily activities.
  • Work with each new hire to create and map out their first stretch goal within two weeks of them joining your company.
  • Assign them several professional development courses/activities they must complete during their first couple of months on the job. Instructing them to do this helps them develop a habit of engaging in ongoing learning opportunities.

Developing a strong culture centered on continuous improvement will give you a competitive advantage by enabling your company to achieve more innovative goals. So, though implementing the cultural change may be challenging, it’s well worth the investment.

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