Continuous improvement activities might be more commonplace today, but how did it evolve? Though not prevalent in all industries, the concepts are widespread throughout many organizations. 

The relentless focus on continuous improvement in the workplace did not come about until after the emergence of Japan as a leading producer. This came about after WWII with the assistance of Drs. W. Edward Deming and Joseph M. Juran being dispatched by the United States to help Japan’s management and technical expertise.

After several decades in the pursuit for continuous improvement, there is still much room for improvement, especially in engaging people. In fact, some experts suggest that only 30% of American workers feel engaged—in other words 70% of workers are disengaged in improvement activities!

This dismal record should be at the forefront for many senior managers, but the evidence does not indicate much has changed to reverse this trend. Disengaged workers are indifferent to poor processes that erode quality. In the United States, some data suggested there are millions of workers who do not care about, or dislike, their jobs or work environment. This distain results in errors that go unreported and indifference to service interaction with customers, which results in losses of billions of dollars annually. 

It would seem logical that American business leaders would be doing all they could to motivate and engage their workers. Previously, I wrote a thesis on employee engagement focusing on employee suggestion programs. After studying several companies, it was discovered that 80% of ideas come from employees; yet in the United States, 70% of employees are not engaged. Consider the missed opportunities! 

When organizations make a concentrated effort to involve workers in continuous improvement, they achieve great results. One of the classic examples is Toyota who after several decades of using their suggestion system, still implements one idea per month over a workforce of several thousand. It does not have to be difficult. 

How is it possible for companies like Toyota to find a steady flow of employee improvement ideas? One way to engage more people is for leaders to lower their expectation for considering the smallest acceptable improvement. For companies like Toyota, the threshold for continuous improvement ideas may be literally a couple seconds. For most American companies, however, they would not bother with ideas this small, so they miss opportunities to engage their workforce and boost profitability! 

Changing the culture and engaging the workforce, however, is not easy. A company cannot just say “they want every job to be designed to help people do their best every single day” and that magically happens. One of the biggest challenges comes from the human side of improvement. Improvement means change, which triggers emotional responses such as fear of exposure, embarrassment, or punishment, leading to reactionary and unintelligent behaviors. Acceptance is as much or more of an emotional exercise than an intellectual one. Organizations too often overlook the human side of improvement.

It might be helpful to recall four of Dr. Deming’s famous 14 points for good management and seeing how these ideas are important elements to simplifying an over-complicated approach to engaging people in improving their workplace. The four points Deming mentions are: remove slogans, eliminate quotas, remove barriers between departments, and remove fear in the workplace.

Removing fear in the workplace is the connecting thread. Deming observed that demotivation was a much bigger problem than motivation. When people are demotivated, they tend to be disengaged! Deming said, “If management stopped demotivating their employees, they wouldn’t have to worry so much about motivating them.” He stressed that people are naturally creative and want to do a good job. We just need to remove the barriers blocking their efforts. 

At the core of Deming’s teaching is that if organizations want to engage everyone in quality improvement they must demystify and broaden the definition of quality work to include not only the outputs of the work but also how the work is done—safely, at a low cost, and with a minimum of stress. This includes reviewing the process for making improvement easier. The process itself must be easily understood, and it must be well thought out. 

In the beginning of any initiative, the emphasis should not be on results but rather on building a robust process for participation based on open communication and trust. If organizations can achieve this level of understanding, a culture of engagement and commitment will flourish. 

On the other hand, if organizations emphasize short-term profits then incentives will be created to look only for big wins, rewarding a select few while demotivating the majority of the workforce. If organizations believe that continuous improvement is truly important, and that quality processes yield quality results, should not continuous improvement be paramount in the effort to build reliable, flexible, and capable processes being improved daily by a well-trained and valued employee base? Once organizations realize the connection of an engaged workforce to profitability, they will finally focus on reversing the environment that prevents the majority of workers from being involved.

Continuous improvement is a discipline more than a technique. Incremental, constant small steps produce a positive environment to make improvement a way of life. It is about the pursuit of excellence.