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Laying the Foundation for Continuous Improvement, Phase One – Part 1

Guest Blog

Guest Blog

By Lisa Meschi

Many organizations begin to emphasize continuous improvement (CI) in times of economic downfall to eliminate any potential waste, but we were different—we created our CI effort because we were thriving, and we wanted to sustain our success as we continued to grow and expand.

Our company specializes in genetics development and agricultural distribution with over 1,200 employees globally, including locations in the U.S., Mexico, Europe, and Asia.  In the last 20 years, we have experienced substantial operational and market growth, doubling in size every 5 years. Our company culture fosters innovation, excellence, and collaboration.

Our CI effort was born with the formation of a CI Council, which was a group of cross-functional managers and executives who were charged by the CEO with the development and deployment of CI in our company.  We began with a current-state assessment of our maturity in a number of different areas, including process management, measurement, process improvement capability, and role and responsibility definition.  We found that smart & capable people, many spreadsheets, and a great product were sustaining us rather than strong systems and processes. 

We developed a CI roadmap to address these gaps, and the first step was to create four sub-teams to focus on critical foundational elements: CI communications, process management, performance improvement planning and measurement (scorecard), and CI education and training. 

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Our education and training sub-team was undoubtedly our largest area of investment.  This sub-team created a curriculum for all employees designed to build CI-related competencies and skills, including courses in project management, process management, measurement, and process improvement.

This team also sponsored an intensive program for carefully selected middle managers to certify them as performance improvement coaches.  We chose to train coaches at this level because we wanted to embed CI in the business. These middle managers had established credibility and also had major operational responsibilities with teams that would benefit from a performance improvement coach as a leader.    The program required a 50% time commitment for 9 months, and, after graduation, coaches were deployed part-time, either in their own function or cross-functionally.  In three years, we trained 30 internal coaches from all areas of the company in the U.S. and Mexico. 

Once we had a group of CI coaches process improvement project selection was a hot topic.  With no strong process management system in existence, we mainly relied on our executive team to pick projects.  Their decisions were driven by intuition and awareness of processes that were “broken,” but were not based on analysis of data and metrics.  The projects were often large in scope and too complex to be tackled by a process improvement team alone.

The CI Council learned enormous lessons along the way as we strategized, created and deployed an infrastructure, trained employees, and started process improvement projects.  As we assessed our roadmap for CI, we began to problem solve for the elements that were not working and realized the following:

  • Infrastructure must evolve as the company matures. 
    It was ambitious to create such a comprehensive infrastructure from the start.  We took the risk of diluting each stream of work and overwhelming the general employee population. This infrastructure was necessary to get us up and running, but after a couple of years, we began to see value in being more targeted, particularly focusing on goals that were closely aligned with the company strategy.


  • Buy-in is necessary at the top, bottom, and in between
    We had the executive support, but it stopped there.  Employees at lower levels in the company began to see process improvement as a burden that was placed on them.  We needed buy-in from our middle managers, our front-line supervisors, and every employee who was actually doing the work.  We started to create this pull at all levels by making the work relevant to each individual and showing the impact they have within a process.


  • Process management before process improvement
    We saw teams fail over and over again because an executive “commissioned” a process improvement project based on instinct, not based on measurement data or the feedback of the people on the ground.  We placed an increased emphasis on taking the time to measure process performance and talk to those involved to ensure that we were working on an area of the process that had the most impact.

It’s easy to get frustrated by the resistance that comes with the introduction of a continuous improvement discipline, but in the first two years of our effort our incremental progress began to unveil itself.  We trained over 400 employees in CI tools and captured $800,000 in savings.  Our employees understood who their internal customers were and how to ask for their requirements.  We began to see more efficient meeting management and enhanced project management skills. 

In Part 2, we’ll explore how we  evolved this foundational infrastructure after the first two years, what our process improvement results are now, and how CI  looks today in our organization. 

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