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  • Writer's pictureJoel Werner

How to Develop an Ethos of Continual Improvement in Your Organization

W. Edwards Deming is one of the fathers of systems thinking and is attributed with helping to rebuild Japan’s industrial strength after World War II. An American engineer, he vigorously applied himself to studying the concept of quality, earning himself a reputation as the “quality guru” in the process. While Deming’s work is rooted in Japan’s manufacturing environment in the 1950s, the principles he developed apply to any industry and are just as relevant today. They can even serve as a framework for personal development.

Deming’s Wheel of Learning

At the heart of Deming's teaching is a cycle of introspection and improvement. His "wheel of learning," as it has become known, involves four stages: planning, doing, studying, and acting (PDSA). In the planning stage, one examines the situation and develops a hypothesis from which a solution emerges. The doing stage is where the solution is implemented, and the studying stage is where the results are measured. Then, in the acting stage, further tweaks or adjustments are made to improve the original solution based on that data.

The Continual Improvement Model (CI)

Back in the US, Deming rose to prominence as a management consultant in the 1980s. His advocacy for a return to rigorous, analytical attention to quality hit home at a time when American industry was in the doldrums. A plethora of management practices, theories, and models have evolved over time, but Deming’s contributions are at the heart of the Continual Improvement Model (CI), which is now a standard concept in business management.

Six core principles underpin CI:

Principle 1. Improvements are rooted in small, incremental changes.

Systems thinking is underpinned by the belief that every action takes place within an interactive system. These systems can be so complex it can be challenging to understand the interdependence of elements thoroughly and fully anticipate the consequences of any action. By avoiding radical, disruptive moves, change agents can mitigate risk and avoid destabilizing the organization. Deming’s cycle suggests cycles of three months or less in which to make incremental improvements.

Principle 2. Improvement is also a bottom-up process.

CI promotes the idea that those working directly with processes and sub-systems will have knowledge and information their seniors don't. Leaving change proposals and system improvements exclusively to management can be risky because they may not be fully conversant with the details—and nor should they be. CI is a two-way, top-down, and bottom-up process that values contributions from all levels of the organizational hierarchy. Organizations that successfully embrace an ethos of CI have open channels of communication between employees and management. They actively encourage suggestions from employees and respond positively to complaints.

Principle 3. Incremental improvements are generally not high-cost initiatives.

Incremental changes seldom involve significant costs. And often, even when employees propose suggestions, they'll actually involve reducing costs.

Principle 4. Employees are empowered to make improvements.

Systems thinking proposes that large systems need to be made up of smaller, self-managing systems to work effectively. Small changes that don’t require significant investment should fall within the authority of the sub-systems they affect. Therefore, employees and middle management should be empowered to carry out necessary acts of improvement on their own systems. Successful organizations delegate authority to allow day-to-day tasks to continue without distracting management.

Empowering employees to implement changes has the added advantage of less resistance. When suggestions for change come from within the stakeholder group they affect, they will garner more support than proposals handed down “from above.” Allowing employees to suggest, implement, or otherwise be involved in improvements will allow them to feel ownership and pride in the outcomes and be accountable for resolving any issues.

Principle 5. Improvement is reflective.

Deming's wheel of learning is essentially a reflective or introspective process. It is designed as a feedback loop that forces players to interrogate the results of their actions. It does so in a systemic framework: not only do actors examine whether actions resulted in intended outcomes, but also whether any unintended outcomes were produced.

Some organizations have a "shaming" culture that encourages people to brush mistakes under the rug or move on quickly without dwelling on them. But by doing so, they lose the opportunity to learn from mistakes and strengthen the organization's collective wisdom. Organizations that successfully develop an ethos of CI “celebrate failure” with regular retrospectives that encourage discussion of all discoveries made.

Principle 6. Improvement is measurable and replicable.

Finally, an improvement is only an improvement if it can be measured and repeated. The measurement of improvement must be decided on in the planning stage of the process. Some improvements may be easily quantifiable, such as increased revenue—others, such as customer satisfaction, may be more qualitative. Empowering employees in both quantitative and qualitative measures will introduce an "improvement facilitating vocabulary" to the organization, which will trigger further thinking.

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