Continuous Improvement Models

Describe your organization’s continuous improvement model.

Consider the artifacts, rituals, and systems a team uses to “improve”. Here are two examples from the Agile/Scrum world (used because they are handy and fairly well known, not because this post is about Agile/Scrum). Importantly, these are highly team focused.

The Agile Manifesto recommends that…

…at regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.

Regular retrospectives are one approach to continuous improvement. Other approaches exist (and can be interwoven with retrospectives). Six Sigma and Kaizen are popular in the Lean world:

Six Sigma is a disciplined, data-driven approach to continuous improvement. It uses a set of quality management methods rooted in statistical analysis, and relies on an infrastructure of people within the company who are trained experts in these methods to see them through. Six Sigma experts have to work their way through a series of certifications, which are identified by different colored belts, as in karate or judo. Each role comes with specific responsibilities, so success with Six Sigma relies on having each role filled by a qualified expert.
Compared to Six Sigma, Kaizen is far less structured and rigid. Kaizen is a mindset, a way of working that enables organizations to eliminate waste, improve work quality, and boost morale, empowering all employees to actively participate in the improvement of their daily work.

For large swaths of the business world, the continuous improvement model looks far less organized. It’s more like…

If something is wrong, talk to your manager in your next 1:1. Her job is to generally protect the team from distractions. Oh, and we send you an employee engagement survey once a year, do performance reviews, and give you a learning opportunities.

This model is very different from Six Sigma and Kaizen, but it is still a continuous improvement model. And this is where the biggest tension exists between Lean/Agile ways and “traditional” management roles and organizational structures.

Our work is very cross-functional. Dependencies are everywhere. Take a team with a designer, engineer, and product manager. They aren’t getting along for whatever reason. How do they sort this out? Now add a disgruntled support expert who has to deal with a buggy feature. How do they advocate for quality? Sales needs X. Now what? Oh wait, twenty teams share a single internal Ops team that can’t provision new environments quickly enough. Does everyone march up to their floor and raise hell?

Do these people seeking improvement 1) each go and complain to their respective bosses, and those bosses get together and hash it out, or 2) do they meet during a retrospective, and try to resolve the issue? If #2, how does that impact the role of management now that their reports just work it out with other teams? If #1, how do these managers/leaders solve these issues in a vacuum without the involvement of their respective teams? It is not binary…there’s likely a whole spectrum of approaches depending not the gravity of the issue.

Models range. Org 1: 150 person cross-functional retros with ad-hoc teams formed to tackle pain-causing issues. Org 2: The managers work it out at an offsite.

At least in my experience, there is far more focus on the efficiency of small work groups, than on the global health of the system. It is far easier to focus locally on a product development team (or support team, or documentation team), than it is to fix the global impediments that impact everyone. When there is tension, it is easier to slip into giving teams prescriptive marching orders and managing their interactions with human load balances (project managers) than it is to figure out why they can’t solve problems together. In many organizations, managers of respective departments/teams are actually COMPETING for budget and influence. In short, it is hard, but you’re doing something.

There is no silver-bullet approach, but I do think there is a massive opportunity for organizations to at least clarify their continuous improvement model — the continuous improvement operating system (CIOS). How does it work in your organization? How do you improve together (If you do)? Who is involved?