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Blog Author:
Richard Eaton
Adventurer. Process Whisperer. Force of Nature
Richard, a founding partner of Berlineaton, works and lives the Berlineaton vision: A world of courageous endeavours. For the past 18 years he has served alongside visionary leaders committed to delivering bolder futures for their organizations by leading transformational improvement projects in three areas of organizational excellence: direction, process and people.
Continuous Improvement: Five Stages to Victory
“It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.”
W. Edwards Deming

Continuous Improvement is a way to work together to proactively manage change. In other words, getting ahead of the curve before the curve gets you.

I have been in the Continuous Improvement business for almost 20 years and people frequently ask me how to make it work in their organizations. Many of those who ask seem a little desperate. Fighting to survive in the face of high volumes and rates of change, they tend to express what could best be described as ‘drowning experiences' and say things like:

All of a sudden, we were plunged into it.”
“There was no going back.”
“We were all floundering around.”
“I had no idea where we were going.”
“We struggled through.”
“I had my head down for weeks and couldn’t come up for air.”
“There were a few casualties.”

Accompanying these crisis-like descriptions of change, they usually interject observations about leadership such as:

“The boss wouldn’t listen to me.”
”I’m up to my rear end in alligators and the boss does a leadership drive by.”
“None of us were qualified or prepared to lead a process this big.”
“They had no plan, no idea. They said one thing and then did another.”
“He/she was very passive aggressive about our ideas.”
“The whole thing was driven from the top down.”

 So, how can Continuous Improvement help you do it right and make it stick?

As a result of our work over many years and on hundreds of projects we have developed a relatively simple, five-stage approach as follows:

Stage 1: Observe
Being a trained paratrooper, I like to think of this as the ‘look before you leap’ stage. All too frequently, leaders will rush in to try and fix something without really knowing what is going on.

During Stage 1: Observe, you must take a step back from the coal face and really appreciate what is going on. I use the word ‘appreciate’ deliberately because it reflects the fact that as well as problems, there is something ‘going right’ out there.

Engage everyone: your bosses and peers, suppliers, customers, staff and other stakeholders in a discussion about what they think is going well, and what should be improved. Then look for patterns, usually related to either strategic planning, process and/or people issues, and use those to help you build your vision and goals during Stage 2: Focus.

Stage 2: Focus
Having gathered all the facts, both good and bad, and identified patterns or themes in the information you’ve collected, it’s time to put them together in one place and decide what you are going to do about the current situation, over the long term.

During Stage 2: Focus, develop a compelling future vision and goals for your Continuous Improvement program. Be clear about the deliverables you expect to see, then figure out who you will need to help you achieve them.

Unless you live in a box, you will need help to develop and implement complex ideas. Plan to enlist the help of those individuals and teams you will need to help lead change successfully across your organization, and on board them to your design team before you move to action during Stage 3: Redesign.

Stage 3: Redesign
Now it’s time to design the future.

With the help of the design team, during Stage 3: Redesign, you will map out your current business reality, note things you should keep and things you should change, then redesign to achieve your vision. By the end of this activity you will have some important handrails to install during Stage 4: Execute, including:

·A map of the current situation, warts and all
·A list of things to keep and opportunities to improve
·A redesigned map, staking your claim to the future
·Actions to implement the desired changes
·A communications plan designed to engage everyone on the effort.

Stage 4: Execute
Having developed a great plan, it is now time to execute.

Set priorities for implementing the new way you designed during Stage 3. Enlist the support you will need from everyone to help you implement on those highest priorities. Realign the resources in your organization to support this effort as required. Delegate, communicate, celebrate and then recreate successes when they do occur - and they will. It is critically important to keep everyone involved at this stage so they understand what is going on and how they can help.

Stage 5: Sustain
You will likely realize some early successes that are good examples of the future you are striving for. Capture, share and learn from these quick wins, and then apply those learnings to other parts of your plan. When you are successful at doing this a few times you will begin to experience a culture shift as your change leaders gain confidence, and more and more staff jump on board based on the ‘show me’ principle of followership.

Over time, more and more people will figure out that it’s okay to get involved in helping to make things better and, with the right kind of empowering leadership, will be able to take the lead on their own without prompting from above or assistance from outsiders.

On Leadership
In the final analysis the key underlying ingredient for successful continuous improvement and change is the leadership style of the executive and management team, and the prevailing leadership culture. Continuous Improvement will not work if you and your boss do not believe in it enough to lead it, or to delegate enough to avoid strangling the life out of it.

I know it's a tough pill to swallow, but it's always all about leadership and, if you're the boss, mainly your leadership.

As General George S. Patton once said: “Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with the results.” The message here is that if you are a micro-managing control freak, you will not be successful. So, if you need to, loosen it up a bit and learn to empower and delegate more. If you can’t, don’t even think about trying this approach otherwise it will fail and, more importantly, your staff will never, ever trust you enough to try this again.

This is the first article in a five part series about the fundamentals of continuous improvement by Richard Eaton, co-founder of Berlineaton.  For more information about continuous improvement, please visit

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