Continuous improvement is about commitment, rigor and discipline.

In previous columns I’ve written about the importance of continuous improvement. We’ve focused on the human side of quality and the power of incremental improvement. Now let’s take the discussion into a different aspect of continuous improvement.

Another characteristic of the meaning that I give to improvement is that improvement also is dependent on factors other than human influence. Certainly, in my opinion, which is supported by 45 years of work experience, the criticality of the human side of quality cannot be denied. However, getting people to work smarter, or harder for that matter, in poorly designed or poorly functioning processes will produce minimal improvement at best.

Remember what W. Edwards Deming said about design and workplace processes as well as the supporting processes? “The system is responsible for 94% of the problems” and who owns the system?

Management must assume the responsibility of creating an environment which continuously improves the system. One of the ways in which management can create this environment is to work to institutionalize continuous improvement to make it a way of organizational life.

When organizational improvement performance shows significant gain, the improvement is not just the sum of individual performances. It also is the result of improved processes and the synergistic result of team performance. Assembling individuals into teams transcends the capacities and limits of individuals, and integrating teams into a larger whole, thus transcending the capacities and limits of the organization.

Significant improvements in the quality of products, services and increased customer satisfaction result from improvements in work processes. These work processes are not under the control of any one person. They are under the control of a variety of people who function in one type of organizational team or another, for example, work teams and project teams.

Individuals certainly have an influence on their sphere of work being performed, and that influence has an impact, positively or negatively, on the result. However, when individuals are formed into synergistic teams, they can have tremendous influence to improve customer satisfaction and work processes through teamwork augmented by the assistance and cooperation of their fellow associates.

On an individual basis, we will not be totally successful in obtaining the level of performance excellence that is needed for an organization to survive and prosper. We can’t obtain significant improvement by strengthening the motivation of individuals or by getting people to work harder. Many studies indicate the vast majority of people are already committed to doing their best. What’s needed is for management to focus on improving skills and knowledge of their people to help them work together in a more synergistic way to improve the robustness of their processes.

There is one more distinctive characteristic in the meaning that I give to improvement and that’s measurement. To be of lasting substance, improvement must be a continuous process. Until improvement is institutionalized, it will never be viewed as a regular and routine part of performance. Until it is viewed as the norm, improvement will continue to be a response to organizational pain that cascades through an organization. Responding to pain-for example, taking care of customer issues-is absolutely essential. However, if organizations remain stuck at this level, they will not institutionalize continuous improvement.

Organizations shouldn’t be focused on any particular method or tool as continuous improvement is more about commitment, rigor and discipline than it is about technique. Making continuous improvement part of the organizational fabric is paramount if we want to experience everyone pulling together and working toward the same end. to read Jim Smith's weekly blog, Jim's Gems.