Five things to put in place when starting an improvement culture

Tim Akerman
Categories:   Change Management   Consultancy   Process Improvement  

Your business has identified improvement as a critical task. OK so what next?

Whether your business is in its early years and trying to grow or established and looking to stabilise, there are some things you need to do if you are going to sustain improvements. Often you look to consultants for help or send staff on a training course. These activities will make things happen and change, but will they deliver lasting change? Not without the five things listed below. So what are these five things?

  1. Clear purpose
    What is your business purpose, to make money? Look again. Believe it or not, making money is a side effect of a well-run business. Focusing on your customers and their needs ensuring that your product or service is designed to and capable of addressing and resolving that need is paramount. The business must also have a credible story of how customer’s pain points are relieved through the product or service provided. This clarity of purpose in the long term will ensure that you make good choices focused on delivering outstanding excellence of product and service to your customers. Look after your customers and they will look after you.
  2. Clear values
    Values dictate what we will and will not do as a business. How you make money is more important than how much money you make. I have met too many business owners who are so focused on money, they forget why they set up the business. As they focus more on making money, they stop paying attention to their purpose and lose the confidence and custom of their customers, Have clear values that you believe in and are lived not laminated. Values aligned to purpose that are real and applied every day have a powerful impact on your business, employees, suppliers and customers. your values become principles and express your mission with authenticity and integrity. Regardless of your stated values, always treat people with respect, it will pay back many times the cost in the medium to long term. More importantly a clear purpose and clear values generate trust.
  3. Prioritisation rules
    Often businesses set out to fix their problems with great energy and resolve. The problem they face is that not all of the problems can be solved quickly. The resources applied to improvement are quickly overstretched and the workload is inconsistent. This pattern leads to the overburden of staff and unevenness of demand. Don’t try to fix everything at once. Recognise your limitations and use your resources wisely, process improvement is a long term strategy, not a short term fix. Use your values and purpose to set in place a scoring system that can be used to prioritise resources on the improvements that will have the biggest impact on your business. The rules facilitate discussions and disagreements experienced in this phase allow constructive conflict to occur without damaging interpersonal conflict.
  4. Project selection guidelines
    Use your scoring system to ensure that projects are selected that improve your business performance whilst upholding and supporting your values and purpose. Creating a standard scoring process ensures that your projects are focused on long term developments. This doesn’t preclude selecting a project for some other reason, however, the individuals tasked with prioritisation are forced to be honest about their reasons for increasing the priority of this project, be that opportunism, ego, or anything else. Selecting the projects that are objectively shown to have the most impact is not easy, but it is vitally important for both survival and growth. Having a transparent process with foundations in trust and constructive conflict where those involved can discuss and resolve their differences leads to commitment.
  5. Project review process
    All of the work above is of no use if you don’t review project progress. No matter how well a project has been planned, things change and some assumptions are inevitably incorrect. Priorities change, demands change in the business and the resulting progress of the project may not be as planned. It’s not a sign that someone has done something wrong, it’s just business life, so don’t focus on the people focus on the process. Regular reviews encourage accountability and ensure that agreed actions are more likely to happen. Accountability generates results.


Developing these 5 aspects of process improvement will take discipline and focus. Changes to the business purpose and values are major, any change to core purpose and values must be done only after very careful consideration. Purpose and values are core and characteristic, they should not change easily. The specific details of the prioritisation rules, selection guidelines, and reviews will change over time so these are not single events and are in need of regular review.

Businesses often bring consultants and specialists in to help them with their improvement process and ask them to do the wrong things. Consultants are often asked to train, supervise projects, provide specialist analysis skills. Where they can really add value is helping the business leaders to articulate purpose and values, then use these to support the governance system that supports project prioritisation, selection and review.

Thanks for reading and I wish you nothing but success in your business improvement program.