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Why continuous improvement requires more than just technical input if real, sustainable change is to be achieved.

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For over 30 years the global manufacturing sector has focussed resources on improving quality, service and reduced unit cost. This has been achieved through the introduction of continuous improvement (CI) initiatives. This includes lean, 6 sigma and other operational excellence strategies. The reasons for this are simple; ‘globalisation.’  This has meant that cost and product differentiation has never been more important.

In our experience change is a fundamental fact of business life. However, relatively few managers and leaders are equipped successfully to sustain change. Indeed, for a few there is an inherent incapability at mission critical leadership and managerial levels. Continuous Improvement, we argue, relies on more than just implementing lean techniques, and work practices such as multiskilling and line side inventory. It requires effective team working and for “discretionary behaviours” to be demonstrated by everybody in the business. This being achieved through empowerment, team working and engagement. Moreover, these behaviours cannot be achieved through continuous improvement workshops and lean training alone, nor by utilising ‘off the shelf’ training or through glossy employee communications. The challenge, therefore, is to achieve a horizontal alignment of operational and people strategies. This needs to be sustainable and cost effective.

A typical scenario

Organisations go through cycles where they review operations to ensure capabilities match current best practice, fit into the commercial strategy of the business and are fit for customer demands. These cycles often take place after economic shocks have hit a business. This could be a sudden drop in profits from lost clients or a macroeconomic event such as a recession or ‘Brexit’. All too often change initiatives such as continuous improvement (CI) and lean follow modest upturns as resources become available to tackle issues and the appetite for change is at its highest.

Typically, resources are allocated to Continuous Improvement teams for them to review and update processes such as 5S, 7 wastes, lean sigma and so on.  These techniques  will appear to be successful as the, “low hanging fruit” is harvested in terms of quick fixes and ‘cost downs’.

However, this improvement initially, hailed as a success and rightly championed as best practice, is often transitory and unsustained.


Simply put: people, people and people!

Many operational and leadership teams unreasonably feel that CI is designed adversely to affect their jobs and careers. They fear change and, in many cases, fail to continue engaging with CI when it becomes more challenging and the quick gains are gone. This lack of engagement is typically not because employee communications or incentive schemes are missing. More likely it will be because various layers, individuals or departmental teams are reluctant to change beyond a certain, very modest point. Only relatively rarely do we find that the staff is actually incapable of changing.

Our Experience

Ramsey Hall and The Occupational Psychology Group (The OPG) has worked extensively with industrial, life sciences, FMCG and technology sector clients over a 25+ year period. Thus, we have a deep understanding of how CI is often derailed and corrupted. Our analysis of major client projects in the last few years has identified several common denominators:

I.       The capability of supervisors, managers and leaders is unquantified and ‘assumed’. Performance management is often sadly lacking, incomplete or ineffectively implemented. This means no real measure of past performance or future capability is available. More often than not, capability is assessed on a ‘gut feel’ or familiarity level.

II.       Managers and leaders have traditionally been promoted or appointed on the failed ‘craft skills’ model, where success at operational or technical level has led to promotion with little or no regard to leadership and strategic management capability. All too often the result unfortunately is a case of ‘the blind leading the blind’. This  leads  to disengagement; a failed command & control culture which results in poor performance; a lack of ‘discretionary behaviours’, and poor or even non-existent team working.

III.       Training and performance management has often been lacking especially at first line management, operational management and mid/senior levels. Traditional learning & development has tended to focus on senior leadership. Resources are not always allocated further down. In our experience, the ‘drip down’ approach to leadership has limited efficacy as the ability of leaders to influence beyond immediate reports is often very limited.

IV.       HR, operations and business functions can often lack horizontal alignment and therefore take little or no regard of the wider needs of the business. We argue CI teams MUST work with HR if goals are to be achieved.



What does this mean?

In assessing over 400 managers across multiple sectors, we found several troubling ‘common themes’ which appear to transcend industry type or organisational size.


a.   Managers often lack the ‘change management’ capability to sustain CI. In some cases this includes poor cognitive ability as well as a negative attitude towards implementing practical change management techniques on a people level.


b.   An entrenched set of ‘norms’ where the emphasis has become too dependent on ‘fire fighting’. The overriding need to meet operational objectives and schedules means that managers ignore, dismiss as a “nicety” or fail to prioritise continuous improvement. We have seen this rational used to justify ignoring urgent and fundamental issues such as excessive waste and product scrap. This clearly costs a lot of money!


c.   In many cases a more insidious reason for failure exists; it’s called, “a will to do better”.  With one major multinational client, in particular, the gap analysis of the business wide cohort found that poor work attitudes, low motivation and old fashioned, “them and us” attitudes prevailed. This meant that the managers concerned were never going to be successful with CI and therefore, when we ran a 9-box grid workshop, we recommended action was taken to deal with the manager!


d.   CI training, 6 sigma blackbelts etc. are critical to effective CI but so too is a holistic approach to behavioural change, leadership capability and the pursuit of the holy grail of HR: “discretionary behaviours”. Traditional employee engagement fails to address capability assessment & development and does little to identify barriers to change.



Our approach

We work with Continuous Improvement and HR teams to understand current capabilities, assess attainment and potential, and identify gaps and barriers to change at individual, team, functional and organisational levels. These may then be benchmarked against our substantial ‘best practice’ data set or other external data sources such as SHL.

To achieve this, we have a plethora of techniques and methodologies at our disposal. However no two organisations are the same so we cannot be specific in recommending an approach until we understand the client in more detail.

Typically, depending on the client culture, participant numbers, demographics (global or UK centric) and budget, yes budget, we utilise a number of methodologies including:


1.   Designing competency/career frameworks aligned with CI, operational excellence and business strategy. This may then be used as part of the assessment.

2.   Capability development centres – useful for larger cohorts.

3.   Psychometric assessment with depth interviews – a more individual approach.

4.   360 surveys with assessment and interviews.

5.   Benchmarking with external comparators (our database is extensive and we have access to other norms).

6.   Using interview data gathered around attitudes and experience of lean etc. gathered by your CI team or our consultants.


We then design and get the individual participant to “buy in” to their personal development plan and produce a gap analysis with Learning & Development plans at the organisational level. This also produces further evidence to support performance management, succession planning and restructuring. Often, we chair workshops for 9 box grid modelling using all the data that the organisation has at its disposal.

And afterwards

We help sustain performance through the provision of psychometric assessment at recruitment stage. We also design online attraction and selection methodologies. After all, as we have seen above, effective recruitment is more cost effective than selecting the wrong hire.

Moreover, we also work with our clients to design and implement performance reviews which work and which are linked to competencies. We also offer executive coaching and development. This helps managers achieve transformational change and sustained continuous improvement.

All this can become part of your workforce strategy and which we can input as required.


Continuous Improvement, lean experts and industrial trainers are all important drivers of change. But only if your staff are the right people who have the right competencies, attitudes and skill sets for the job. ‘Horizontal alignment’ of strategies means that people are effective at delivering operational and vertical strategies.

Finally do your managers have the following characteristics?

An ability to lead teams that WANT to improve; to go the extra mile and display discretionary behaviours Managers understand, APPRECIATE and embrace continuous improvement and lean methodologies through “walking the talk” and empowering teams.

Best practice management techniques such as self- managing teams, multiskilling and effective schedule adherence are the ‘norm’ at line level.

Overtime is controlled and reduced as efficiency and skills utilisation  improves through effective line leadership as well as senior leadership engagement.

CI targets are met and exceeded with managers SUGGESTING further areas for improvement without prompting.

The above is not a utopian dream. It is the fundamental components of high performance and sustainable productivity.

About the author & Ramsey Hall

Matthew Davis BA(Hons) MSc FCIPD FCIM is a director and leads the Talent Management, Business Psychology and Organisational Development practice. He has over 25 years’ expertise of working with technology, life sciences, FMCG and industrial clients.. He has a Master of Science Degree in Performance Management & Workplace Learning with Merit from the University of Leicester and is fully CIPD qualified by examination.

Ramsey Hall has worked with clients since 1991 to recruit, engage and ensure high performance for clients who understand that people are the key differentiators for performance for clients globally. It is a SHL Premium Partner and is recognised for its experience and expertise. It has a diverse team of experts in talent management, business psychology, organisational development and executive search/resourcing.

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