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  • Writer's pictureDr. Patrick E. Crawford

Continuous Improvement

Updated: Dec 13, 2023

Leadership Thoughts | Issue #141
 
"Continuous improvement fills the gap between the current reality and a vision of the ideal." ~ Patrick Crawford

Ask anybody if they support the idea of constant improvement, and the answer will be absolute. Who would disagree with the concept of "continuous improvement?" Whether applied to oneself or an organization, the idea of constantly striving for betterment is universally accepted. Continuous improvement is a mindset that focuses on unceasingly enhancing a product, service, organization, or individual.

The idea is to make small but consistent changes over time to achieve significant advancements and improved outcomes. To successfully implement continuous improvement, there must be a learning, adaptation, and growth culture. Feedback, reflection, and iteration are crucial components in this process. It requires a dedication to consistently evaluating current practices, identifying areas for improvement, implementing changes, and assessing their impact to drive continual progress and excellence.


Focusing on continuous improvement is key to understanding the concept of an "infinite game" (Crawford, 2023) and the importance of setting achievable "finite" goals. To illustrate, let's consider two examples. I have a close friend who committed to losing 147 pounds over a span of two years by strictly adhering to a specific diet plan that prescribed each meal and snack. Weekly consultations with a coach helped track progress through small but consistent weight loss goals. The ultimate goal was not just reaching a certain weight but improving overall health. However, once my friend reached their target weight, they transitioned to a maintenance program and, after four years, gained back all the weight they had lost.


In many organizations, a strategic plan is created to address areas for improvement and establish a clear strategy with defined goals and objectives. Data is collected and evaluated to track progress toward these specific goals. While some may be accomplished, many are overlooked due to the demands of daily operations. After three to five years, a new strategic plan is typically developed.


Take a moment and reflect. Have you encountered similar situations as the examples described? Do these instances, or any others you have experienced, align with the "continuous improvement" concept? Are there elements missing from these examples, or are your experiences crucial to continuous improvement? If you are short on time, please pause here and contemplate these questions. However, in the following paragraphs, I will share my insights and reflections on continuous improvement based on my learning.

I have found several recurring themes in exploring effective methods for implementing continuous improvement. Improvement is a constant process that occurs over time and in different phases. There is no definitive approach to continuous improvement; instead, various strategies can be utilized at different organizational levels. These entry points are not mutually exclusive and can offer valuable perspectives and contrasts. Despite its incremental and ongoing nature, striving for progress demands deliberate preparation, consistency, analytical thinking, and open communication.


The following leadership themes are consistently found in successful continuous improvement practices. (Park et al., 2013)

  1. Leaders must communicate the infinite game they are playing and the flexible rules that come with it. The goal is continuous progress, and there is no definitive endpoint.

  2. Everyone should know the finite game, its rules, and the goal to win within a defined timeframe.

  3. Leaders must possess dedication, a growth mindset, and a well-defined strategy.

  4. Effective communication and active participation from all members of the value network (Crawford 2022) are crucial.

  5. Systemic thinking is vital for success.

  6. Organizational structures should be adaptable to change and centered around the long-term vision.

  7. Careful consideration should be given to selecting key performance indicators and determining analysis frequency.

  8. The organization must invest in individuals and support their continuous improvement efforts.

  9. Continuous improvement involves incorporating quality enhancements into daily tasks and responsibilities within a system.

  10. Both leaders and the value network must commit to daily improvement practices that align with the overall vision and mission of the organization.


Organizations are designed to achieve specific results, and the outcomes they produce reflect their structure. Some organizations may believe they are constantly improving by participating in various improvement projects, even if they are unrelated or non-sequential. However, continuous improvement requires consistent dedication and leadership from all organization members. Simply voicing support for improvement is not enough; leaders must actively integrate improvement strategies into daily tasks for all organization members.


The image below demonstrates the continuous improvement process that propels the organization toward its desired state and ultimate vision. This progression comprises interconnected projects, each building upon the other sequentially. These projects involve continuous research and learning cycles that are both iterative and incremental. Through meticulous planning, strong leadership, and transparency, these projects will align and drive the organization closer to achieving its vision of continuous improvement.





The concept of "continuous improvement" is embraced by individuals and businesses alike, promoting a constant pursuit of advancement. This mindset involves consistently seeking ways to improve products, services, or personal growth through regular, incremental changes. Leaders must cultivate a learning, adaptability, and development culture to adopt this approach effectively. Essential actions such as actively seeking feedback, reflecting on one's progress, and making gradual adjustments are crucial for continuous improvement.


At the Pennsylvania Leadership Development Center, our program is designed to provide a comprehensive experience in leadership and implementing continuous improvement. If you want more information about our program, please contact me with any questions or inquiries. crawfordp@paldc.org


 

References

Crawford, P. (November 29, 2022).  Value Networks, https://www.paldc.org/post/value-networks


Crawford, P. (November 25, 2023). Infinite and Finite, https://www.paldc.org/post/infinite-and-finite

Park, S., Hironaka, S., & Carver, P. (2013). Continuous Improvement in Education Advancing Teaching-Improving. www.carnegiefoundation.org 


 

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