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Maintaining a Culture of Continual Improvement: Your Role as a Leader

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Continual improvement is a requirement for many of the key ISO Management System standards and any company either aiming to achieve certification or who are looking to effectively maintain their existing systems, should look at this as a priority. Continual Improvement is an area that encompasses multiple aspects of your processes and procedures and should drive an organisation to reduce costs, improve customer satisfaction, mitigate risk etc. But how can Continual Improvement actually be embedded as a work culture and subsequently maintained?

Any leadership team not only needs to ‘buy in’ to the core values of any ISO management system but also make sure that all employees are aware of these values. Any system implemented needs to be compatible with your strategic direction and context of the organisation rather than as an add on, or as is often the analogy (or truth in some cases) a certificate gathering dust on the wall!

However, it is often easier to initially look at some of the areas that enable us to identify improvement opportunities within our business, rather than looking at embedding a ‘culture’ or ‘idea’ for Continual Improvement within our workforce straight away. Below are some examples of key indicators, common to a vast number of companies, that should highlight areas in which improvements could or should be made.

  • Customer Satisfaction Surveys
  • Market Research and Analysis
  • Employee input, Supplier Input and other interested parties
  • Internal and External Audits
  • Data analysis from current processes, procedures and products
  • Non-conformances
  • Customer Complaints and feedback
  • Introduction of new technologies

When broken down in such a way, it is easier to address specific issues, and this is essential, however, we do still need to look at strategies to address the wider context of the organisation, if we want to succeed. In other words, how can we ensure that any analysis of the above is acted on in ways that not only solve immediate issues in a re-active way but will also push pro-active innovative solutions for the longer term. And as leaders, what can we do to enhance our approach to continual improvement strategies to encourage the embracing of change across the board?

Firstly, as a leader you need to have belief in your current product or service to be able to have the confidence to make or embrace beneficial changes (or improvements) to develop and move your business forwards. To have this confidence, it is essential to not only accurately document your current processes, policies and procedures but to make sure that you have effective systems in place to be able to check them. A thorough Gap Analysis should be carried out to establish where you are in the here and now; undertaken in both an accurate and honest way, adding true value to its purpose.

If your current processes aren’t defined and documented well, you are more likely to have a degree of variation in your product or service and therefore you are more likely to have a non-conforming outcome or complaint. This doesn’t necessarily have to have an entirely negative outcome though as by thoroughly investigating and identifying the cause (root cause analysis), you are better placed to define and establish an improved process. This is particularly key if you identify a common cause for a non-conformance, which will provide an obvious and valuable opportunity for continual improvement.

It is often beneficial to keep in mind the iterative management method; the ‘Plan, Do, Check, Act’ cycle (PDCA).  But make sure that there is emphasis the continued cyclical component. It is crucial that your management processes are audited regularly. Not only should a comprehensive audit schedule be established but you must make sure there is a historic trail, ensuring that you are always moving forwards. If the PDCA mentality is understood and followed by all workers too, this will ensure all aspects are continually reviewed as daily routine, making way for improvement as appropriate. For more information on the importance of auditing click here.

It is worth noting that although you don’t have to document your Continual Improvement Process (as a stand-alone procedure) you do need to define all your other processes and any of their improvements or the ‘need’ for them. There is also no requirement that you need to improve all your processes at the same time and indeed if you tried to do this, it would probably have a detrimental effect.  Therefore, you should focus on those that relate to ‘risk’ and make any improvements in these areas a priority.

When looking at risk management it is useful to rate your risks using a traffic light system or RAG rating. It is also essential to track the length of time that it takes to resolve any accidents, issues or complaints. This is often a sticking point and although problems may be resolved the solutions might not be recorded sufficiently or on time, meaning that analysis is tricky, and any potential improvements are either delayed or overlooked entirely. This could be an area that would benefit from the introduction of new technologies, for example, there are several mobile phone Apps available for real-time reporting. Overall, risk-based thinking needs to be embedded into your company as much as striving for a culture of continual improvement and the two should complement each other.

For a culture of continual improvement to thrive not only do you need to make employees aware of the core values of your company as mentioned previously, but essentially, you need to take time to make sure that there are systems in place to ensure that all employees know the fundamentals of their jobs.  You will also need to appraise and reward on a regular basis. Proper inductions and follow up training should be taken seriously for all staff at all levels. If this is done well, they will be more inclined to have the confidence to challenge their own roles and make suggestions for improvement and innovations in multiple aspects of your business, no matter what their grade.

Although it is essential to have a robust training schedule, training doesn’t necessarily have to come directly from leaders and managers or mean extra expense. Encouraging a culture of knowledge sharing will also go a long way to help to drive continual improvements in your business. This is often easier said than done and knowledge hoarding can be a problem so strategies to combat this should be addressed.

One such strategy is to incentivise employees through various schemes; employee of the month, mentoring schemes etc. This doesn’t have to valued in a monetary fashion and indeed it is more important to make sure that anyone this applies to is officially recognised throughout the company. Digital platforms or knowledge banks can be great tools too for collaborative learning and indeed can lead to innovative ideas and solutions pushing a culture of continual improvement. It may be worth creating a physical space conducive to ‘off-line’ knowledge sharing. To make either ‘value added’ you need to make sure that there is a focus within knowledge sharing in line with your company’s strategic direction and goals (again why it is important that everyone is aware of the ‘bigger picture’).

Perhaps most importantly it is essential to allow the time for one member of staff to pass on their knowledge to the next. All too often adequate transition periods are neglected, and you are left in a situation where someone may be desperately trying to undertake a new role, whilst simultaneously trying to train someone up in their old role. Both parties will be stressed, and neither will learn effectively or be inclined to ‘learn/train’ in the future thereby potentially putting the brakes on any input made towards improvement strategies

In summary the ISO standards not only require you to properly define current processes and procedures but by continual review will help a company to refine and improve its systems. It is key to look at the way in which you review and to build a working environment that is conducive to innovation, knowledge sharing with a common goals and attitudes in respect to innovation and improvement.

Mark 1 Business Systems provide a reliable and trustworthy Management Consultancy service to assist companies in achieving UKAS accredited ISO (International Standards Organization) certification. We cater for all sorts and sizes of organization from Manufacturing or Engineering to Service based and with over 40 years combined experience, we have a wealth of knowledge to draw on, when it comes to implementing a variety of ISO standards.

At Mark 1 we aim to help you achieve your goals and find the right strategies for your business to continually improve, assisting in multiple aspects integral to achieving ISO certification, but also to the running of a successful business overall.

Furthermore, recognizing the value of time in business and the importance of developing efficient, paperless, environmentally friendly ways of working we developed the cloud-based Titan System. Titan is a bespoke Business Management System developed to be user friendly, secure and provide a comprehensive framework to assist in successful implementation of ISO Management Systems to further ease the path to certification. Indeed, by embracing new technology as a leader you will demonstrate to all levels that you are open to new innovative solutions, which will in turn, help to both drive and maintain a culture of continual improvement.

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Mark1 Business Systems Limited
53 King Street, Manchester, M2 4LQ
Tel: 0161 359 4329 | Email: info@mark1systems.co.uk

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