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Continuous improvement: the realities of making the shift

Continuous improvement is not only for underperforming companies—leaders across industries see value in this investment as well.
Carolyn Dewar

Delivers large-scale performance-improvement programs that foster culture change and counsels senior executives making leadership transitions

Blair Epstein

Helps business leaders transform their organization at scale and build a healthy culture of high performance and continuous improvement

The applications of continuous improvement are growing beyond the manufacturing settings where it originally came to prominence (explored in our last myth-busting post). In this post, we turn our attention to another common misunderstanding, about who can benefit from a continuous improvement culture.

Myth: Continuous improvement only benefits underperforming companies.

Reality: Continuous improvement can support a business’s strategy in many different contexts. In our Organizational Health Index (OHI) of almost 2,000 companies, 38 percent of companies pursuing a continuous improvement culture were doing so in a turnaround context. But the other 62 percent were pursuing continuous improvement as a means of moving from good to great.

Leaders across industries see value in investing in continuous improvement. Indeed, one way to remain best-in-class is to maintain the striving ethic and constant tinkering that got the company there in the first place.

In our work, we see recurring themes that are critical to unlocking performance. Here, we share two:

Continuous Experimentation – from “giant leaps” to “small steps”

The challenge: One of our clients was in an industry with long product development cycles. Historically, a new product launch was their chance to implement the host of new ideas and technologies they had kept bottled up for years. The downside of this “giant leap” style of innovation was that it made new product development risky and expensive. This dynamic also seeped into daily work. Everything from everyday processes to how meetings were conducted was deemed to be immutable unless it was time for a “giant leap.”

How it was overcome: Our client shifted to make “small steps” a key part of how it aspired to drive innovation. Small steps could be anything—a small change to speed up process approvals, a new handheld tool to make a factory technician’s job easier, etc. Everyone was encouraged (through frequent communication and role modeling from leadership), trained (on skills like critical thinking and structured problem solving), and given basic tools (e.g., easy-to-understand digital dashboards to monitor their work cell’s performance) to brainstorm and implement small ways to make their work better every day.

Continuous Learning – from “know it all” to “always learning”

The challenge: One of our clients had a culture where “knowledge was power.” Most of the time, deep expertise was a good thing, but there were instances where expert knowledge was used in an unhealthy way—e.g., to stop debate and to disempower frontline teams from making their own decisions. The consolidation of expert knowledge inside of a few heads also presented a real risk for the company. If that knowledge was not codified and disseminated across the organization, then the company might one day find the knowledge was gone with no way to retrieve it.

How it was overcome: We helped our client solve this problem by removing barriers to sharing knowledge. One example was removing structural impediments that made it difficult for junior employees to rotate to new jobs across the company. Another came from creating formal mentorship programs at multiple levels in the organization. Perhaps most importantly, senior leaders undertook the exercise of redesigning their calendars to ensure they had more interactions with junior team members.

Getting started with your own continuous improvement transformation

Culture change doesn’t happen on its own, not even for high-performing companies. Continuous improvement is based on the premise that those doing the day-to-day work know a lot about how to improve that work. Through interacting deeply with employees, we started to uncover what was holding them back, and what could be shifted to take them from good to great.

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