Every day better, hard!?

Gwynt Operational Excellence research on securing results and continuous improvement


Gwynt has conducted research on securing results in improvement projects. Operational managers and final managers in several companies in the (food) industry participated in the study.
What turns out? Continuous improvement has been an integral part of many companies’ strategies for years. Yet many companies struggle to secure improvements, often causing results to slip back to previous levels. Assurance is difficult and 60% give themselves a failing grade. The key lies in a combination of hard factors (tools, templates, standards, procedures, KPIs) and soft factors (leadership, ownership, culture and behavior). Companies often emphasize the hard factors, while research shows that it is the soft factors that are critical and decisive for successful assurance.

Continuous improvement

Continuous improvement, a phenomenon that made its appearance in the 1970s, has several aspects. Best known are the more hard aspects of improvement, particularly techniques derived from the Lean philosophy. Many managers and employees are now familiar with and trained in these techniques such as Six Sigma and SMED.

In improvement projects, we value these proven techniques. They help eliminate non-value-added activities and define new process standards. Through visual management, we update employees on performance and discuss improvement actions and progress.

Soft factors essential in sustainable improvements

In addition to hard factors, practice has shown, soft factors play an equally important role in achieving sustainable improvements.

During improvement projects, we therefore pay a lot of attention to training and coaching employees. As part of an improvement project, there is usually time and money for this, but during “normal” production this is more difficult. Remember that many improvement projects are aimed at improving efficiency. Once the effects of the improvement project are demonstrated, the decision is often made to adjust capacity. That could mean increasing production or, if volumes have not increased, reducing capacity.
This makes training employees extra difficult. Because as a production manager, where do you find the time, when the pressure on production is ramped up to maximum levels, to pay attention to the necessary training. What goes without saying for elite athletes is much less obvious for production workers, even though top performance is expected of the team every day. If training is omitted, it becomes difficult to secure continuous improvement and there is a high likelihood of regression in performance.

Behavior change through feedback

Not only is time spent on training techniques, but also on conducting effective consultation. After all, well-run meetings are one of the most important tools to guide performance improvements. In our view, meetings should be STOER: focused on Getting Better, Team, Objective, Ownership and Respect.

Hidden in this enumeration is another important key: continuous improvement and especially securing it requires a culture change. To avoid getting into complicated culture discussions, we translate culture into behavior. You can observe behavior directly, give feedback on it and assist employees in making step-by-step changes.

Incidentally, this requires something not only of employees, but even more emphatically of managers. Good role model behavior, coaching and mentoring skills are crucial skills that allow you to help employees change their behavior. Giving feedback is not always easy for everyone, but not giving feedback ends up costing much more. Employees as well as the organization ultimately benefit from clarity.

ADKAR helps bring about culture change

Because of the combination of both soft and hard factors, introducing continuous improvement is a change process and should be managed as such.

In doing so, Gwynt uses the ADKAR principles developed by Prosci. ADKAR supports the change management aspect by making estimates of the consequences of the changes from the start of the improvement project, adjusting communication accordingly and explicitly including the role of management.

Intrinsic ability to change

In the recent past, conscious work on hard and soft factors – supported by an effective change strategy – seemed sufficient to be competitive for an extended period of time. However, the exponentially changing world is creating more and more complexity. Continuous improvement must increasingly become true continuous improvement. Standards for processes have an increasingly short lifespan, and technology on numerous fronts is forcing companies to change faster than ever before.

It is therefore essential to focus the change and improvement process not only on concrete project objectives, but also to pay attention to the intrinsic ability to change. Learning to change provides the best foundation for always moving with the developments in the market.

The role of management and middle management

Earlier, the role of the organization’s managerial cadre was discussed. Research shows that management is the most important factor when it comes to learning to change and securing improvements. They must lead the way in change and learn to see for themselves how and what needs to be done. Encourage collaboration, both internal and external. Daring to explore unconventional paths, but also daring to stop initiatives in time. In some cases, this requires active leadership development, in which managers who typically have an “expert” role are taught to act as coaches and mentors.
In addition, middle management plays an essential role in a change project because in most companies the line is responsible for improvement. The risk is that the line is often (too) busy with the hectic business of the day, leaving little time for improvement projects. Therefore, support is needed from (middle) management and (external) specialists to steer projects in the right direction, secure results and create a culture of continuous improvement.

Gwynt focuses primarily on family businesses

The challenges outlined above are perhaps even greater for family businesses than for non-family businesses. A characteristic of family businesses is that employees are generally associated with the company for a long time. This is generally a strength, but when it comes to learning to change, it can also be a hindrance. In our experience, implementing change at family businesses may be more difficult and challenging than at non-family businesses, but if it succeeds, the change sticks better and longer.

Learn more

If you would like to see the results of the survey, weigh in on your own experiences (see Appendix) or have a conversation with one of our advisors, please contact us at info@gwynt.eu.