Building a culture of continuous improvement

13 June 2024 7 min. read

Many companies want to strive for the holy grail of a continuous improvement culture. Yet in practice, hardly any companies manage to achieve this feat. A discussion with Talal El-Assaad from ProClipse Consulting on how it can be done and what kinds of things need to be put into place.

Originally concepted in Japan’s automotive scene, with strong ties with lean and kanban, a “continuous improvement culture” refers to an organisation culture where every team member strives for excellence and innovation.

Achieving such excellence comes with a long list of benefits, not just in terms of employee and team productivity. “When innovation and efficiency become embedded in the daily way of working, they foster sustainable growth, better cooperation, enhanced decision-making, and agility,” said El-Assaad.

Building a culture of continuous improvement

According to the seasoned consultant, cultivating a culture of continuous improvement has since its inception evolved from a methodology that “improves manufacturing excellence” to “an organization-wide lever that provides a competitive edge.”

“In today’s dynamic business landscape, staying ahead of the competition, boosting the bottom line, and establishing a brand as an industry leader demands more than just adhering to established best practices,” explains El-Assaad. “Instead, it requires a holistic approach to striving for excellence, by making things a bit better – all the time.”

An advisory firm with offices in the Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and United Arab Emirates, ProClipse Consulting is an advisory firm that focuses on the implementation of complex change. This places the firm at the centre of the region’s continuous improvement culture revolution, and as the company’s founder, El-Assaad has seen firsthand how various frameworks and operating models have ramped up the changes.

“Various frameworks or operating models have guided the journey towards a continuous improvement culture here,” he says. “Some well-known frameworks include the Toyota Production System, the Deming Cycle, Six Sigma, Lean Manufacturing, and Total Quality Management. The choice of framework depends on the organisation’s unique needs and goals. But they all build toward the key ‘Five Whys’ within continuous improvement culture.

The Five Whys

When it comes to building a continuous improvement culture in the Middle East, the ‘Five Whys’ are crucial.

According to El-Assaad, the first and most straight forward of those is to select a framework and train the firm’s team accordingly. But that can be easier said than done, because organizations can use various frameworks, and correspondingly, they need to ensure that team members thoroughly understand the chosen framework to spearhead improvements effectively.

“You must ensure that the chosen framework aligns with cultural values, such as teamwork and collaboration within hierarchies,” he warns. “Once you think you have the best fit, you will need to make sure you can align the behaviour of staff with the new model. Encourage team members to adopt a mindset of curiosity, where they actively seek opportunities for improvement. Foster a culture where team members are unafraid to question established norms and are open to experimentation.”

In parallel, El-Assaad asserts that organizations should draw on local success stories of leaders who have embraced continuous improvement. “Leadership sets the tone for any change – so ensure leaders always reflect a commitment to learning and growth.”

As with any transformation campaign, leaders should also look to build momentum by focusing on low-hanging fruit. El-Assaad says that companies can gain buy-in from employees by delivering quick wins that demonstrate the benefits of continuous improvement.

“Showcasing tangible improvements can inspire greater engagement,” he continues. “Quick wins not only demonstrate the value of continuous improvement but also reinforce the desired behaviours. Celebrate these wins openly and recognise the individuals or teams responsible. At the same time, you can build on the fact that many Middle Eastern cultures have a strong emphasis on collective achievement. Highlight how quick wins contribute to the collective success of the organisation and reinforce the idea that everyone's contributions matter.”

The third ‘Why’ is to encourage frontline (or: customer facing) involvement. Frontline teams often have valuable insights from direct customer interactions. As such, a business might encourage them to identify improvement opportunities and involve them in the continuous improvement process.

Another important point is to allow for consultative decision-making. Businesses can build trust and make the most of the talents of their staff, by emphasising the importance of consultative decision-making, where input from various levels of the organisation is sought.

El-Assaad adds, “Firms should encourage employees to contribute ideas within a framework of respect for authority. First because Middle Eastern cultures value trust-based relationships, and efforts to encourage employee involvement should be underpinned by trust-building initiatives and relationship-building behaviours. But also because encouraging and rewarding proactive behaviours which drive positive change can help boost the transition to continuous improvement.

“At the same time, foster a culture of open and constructive feedback, where employees feel comfortable sharing their observations and concerns. Encourage feedback not only upwards but also laterally and downwards.”

Also, he notes organizations should communicate the rationale behind changes and implementation logistics clearly. As with any other form of change, businesses can scupper their efforts if they do not ensure that employees understand timelines and milestones. Failing to do so can lead to rumours of what is to come, negative perceptions of the plans and, ultimately, resistance.

“Encourage behaviours such as clarity, honesty, and empathy in communication,” El-Assaad suggests. “Leaders should exemplify these behaviours, creating an environment of trust and psychological safety. They must also recognise the significance of effective communication, which includes not only clear messaging but also a courteous and respectful tone. Encourage leaders to communicate changes with empathy and an understanding of how these changes may affect employees personally.”

Finally, El-Assaad points to the importance of measuring results as a means to achieving success. This means leaders need to set key performance indicators (KPIs) and benchmarks to monitor progress, as measuring results helps identify successful efforts and areas which need further improvement. It also means that they can hold team members to account in terms of their role in the adoption of the new methodology. This does not inherently mean that mistakes are a ‘bad’ thing though.

He clarifies, “Place a strong emphasis on learning behaviours in particular. Encourage employees to reflect on both successes and failures, extracting valuable insights from each experience. Create a culture where continuous learning and development are celebrated.”

In this regard, the ProClipse Consulting experts emphasizes to install a holistic evaluation process. “In the Middle East, performance evaluation often considers both individual and collective contributions. Ensure that KPIs and benchmarks account for both individual and team-based achievements. And always highlight the importance of feedback as a means of personal and professional development. Encourage employees to view feedback as a constructive tool for growth.”

Nurturing a culture of continuous improvement

None of this will be quick, and leaders should be aware that embedding new behaviours within an organization’s culture will take time and patience. “But adhering to these five key points can go a long way to succeeding in the transformative journey. The desired change doesn’t happen overnight but, when delivered successfully, it leads to continuous improvement and lasting organisational excellence.”