“What’s Next?”:The Importance of Continuous Improvement

One of my favorite television shows is The West Wing. When the fictional President Bartlett has resolved an issue or made a decision, he often marks the event with his catch phrase, “What’s next?”  He might have finished signing a bill into law or resolved a hostage crisis or wrapped up a meeting with his staff. No matter the significance of the event, however, the work must continue. What’s next?

In the business world we often approach change management or digital transformations as discrete events that have a beginning and end, like after this change is implemented we’ll be done changing and can return to “normal”. There’s an unspoken feeling that, despite the fact that we like the idea of continuous improvement, we’d really like to be done. Where is the finish line?

Alas! That’s kind of the point. When improvement is continuous, it becomes part of our culture and mindset rather than a project to be completed. The good news is that, once you start building up an expectation of continuous and healthy improvement, employees adjust to the expectations and can even be energized by the promise of better products, services, and resources to come.

For anyone seeking continuous improvement, try the following:

Consider the Investment

Do you really want a culture of continuous improvement? Is this really vital to your industry and business? The answer may seem obvious, but I’d ask you to consider it anyway. Behavior and culture change is really difficult and can cost you a lot of time and energy and money on the front end (see “The Kubler-Ross Change Curve”). It will also require that leadership is aligned and front-line employees have the resources and support to be successful. When business start-and-abandon change initiatives, it erodes trust with the employees and can make future changes even more difficult. You need to be sure that you are committed to creating this culture of continuous improvement and that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks (hint: the benefits always outweigh the drawbacks!).

Frame Your Changes as Experiments

Employees are often burned by leadership’s “experiments”, mostly because they’re not experiments at all! They’re just changes that haven’t been thought through. Implement each change with a clear idea of what you will do, who it might affect, how long the experiment will last, and how you will know if it has succeeded. (See our earlier blog post “Improve More, Experiment Better” or video “Og the Caveman”.) Intentional, thoughtful changes will get more buy-in from employees and have a higher chance of providing actionable learnings for leadership.

 Set Up Feedback Loops

As with any change or project, make sure feedback loops are set up ahead of time! If possible, use existing data or surveys to establish a baseline so you have data to compare to later. It’s vital to (1) ensure your employees’ experiences are being heard and recorded and (2) use feedback and data to discover whether your changes have actually improved anything.

Be Patient and Consistent 

Culture change is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s common to see employees react to change with skepticism, resistance, and even sabotage (whether passive or overt). The only way to counter these is to prove that these changes are being made thoughtfully, purposefully, empirically, and that the culture is not going back to its pre-continuous improvement state. If you are consistent and patient with these behaviors, employees will learn to trust and—hopefully—even embrace the new normal.

Take-Aways: Ensure that you’re ready for the costs of continuous improvement as well as the benefits, set up structures to get feedback and data from your changes, and be patient and consistent during implementation.

Questions: Do you agree? Disagree? Are there more important, impactful considerations for continuous improvement? What lessons have you learned, whether from good or bad examples of continuous improvement cultures?

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