Continuous Improvement has become virtually a universal business concept and mantra to many.  There are many adaptions and variations; call me a cynic but these are usually for the purposes of copyright and claiming of intellectual property.  Ultimately continuous improvement is an intuitive process which doesn’t need such additional baggage attached to it.  The purpose of this article is to strip Continuous Improvement down to its basics without unnecessary over-elaborations or claims on creating a new variation to claim as my own.  Later it will be contrasted with systemic failure and illustrated through two case studies.

Continuous Improvement is cyclical, based on the principle that however good something is it can always be made better and comprises of three basic elements.  As a cycle it can be joined at any point, but it is almost certainly most logical to go through the cycle as illustrated below.

1 Assess

Assessment means examining the existing systems and processes and seeing how they firstly stand up and secondly how they can be made better.  This may include robust testing, client reviews and staff feedback among a myriad of other inputs.

This part of the cycle is primarily focused on collecting data and creating a snapshot of the existing situation in the organisation.

2 Plan

Once data has been collected any gaps or discrepancies should become apparent.  It is worth noting that one of the guiding principles of Continuous Improvement is that the more it is applied the less such weaknesses should appear as things get better with each cycle.  However, we must always remember that we are never the finished product and there is always room for improvement.  However in terms of cost effectiveness and efficiency it is important to keep the Continuous Improvement in a bigger framework that also considers optimisation (this is discussed at greater length in the next article – How Far Can We Drive Continuous Improvement?)  The planning stage is all about looking for remedies or initiatives that can cover such gaps and ensure that they never (again) become a problem.

This part of the cycle is about developing a way forward, a strategy and concrete ideas.  Where possible it should include representatives from all vested interests, not to create a consensus (which usually ultimately means a compromise), but to increase ownership of the plan(s) across all parties.

3 Implement

The assessment has been done and the remedial plan made.  The next stage is to make it happen.  In Winning Jack Welch highlights a key problematic area many organisations face is the successful implementation (or in his words execution) of a plan, strategy or change (see his 4Es and a P Framework).  For the Continuous Improvement cycle to be effective implementation is vital.  It is often said that identifying a problem is half of the solution, but that is all it is, unless it is followed through with remedial actions.

This part of the cycle is about making a change, making a difference and driving improvement through real action.

When stripped down Continuous Improvement really is that simple.

Although straightforward that doesn’t mean that it is unproblematic to implement.  Your people may accept the tweaking of a system, but generally are resistant to change.  Change is a challenge to everybody and is to be the subject of a later article.  The second and probably more significant issue is when there is a cultural rejection of Continuous Improvement, which by definition means the acceptance of systemic failure.

Systemic failure can be defined as any situation when an organisation fails to deliver because of inadequate processes or structures.

It is not uncommon when an organisation experiences rapid growth and can easily be illustrated using the simple concept of how communication works.  An organisation of 10 or 20 people can usually operate through a free flow of information, but the bigger it gets the more problematic it becomes, unless structures and processes are put in place to accommodate growth.

This situation can emerge through a naïve understanding of growth dynamics, but it is worse when systemic failure is endemic to an organisation’s culture.  They don’t want to change, there is a complacency along the lines of ‘everything is ok, it works on the whole – what’s the problem?’  This attitude is unhelpful; it is internally demoralising and generates a lot of negativity.  Negative communication transmits far more effectively than positive messages and consequently it creates a whole host of problems including high staff turnover, poor motivation and reputational damage.

Especially bear this in mind when reading the second case study, and while I haven’t named names most readers would be inclined to view things through the same lens as I have – a negative review which later had further negative consequences.

So now the basics have been defined we are going to examine both principles through two case studies.  Please forgive what may seem to be an overindulgence in the first case as it is important for the reader to understand the wider context in which I am writing.

Case Study 1 – Continually Implementing Continuous Improvement

There is a man in my home city who some believe has godlike powers, who has the ability to spray ‘fairy dust’ on everything he touches and the only joking criticism of him is that he is not very good at managing expectations.  This is not highlighting a character flaw, rather it is the fact that the results speak for themselves.  Every time the bar has been raised he has more than exceeded what was thought to be possible.

This man is Danny Cowley and he is the Manager of Lincoln City Football Club.  He is rare combination of confidence, competence and modesty.  He is self-effacing and frequently deflects any praise he receives to his brother Nicky, the team or the fans.  Officially Danny is the Manager and Nicky is the Assistant Manager, but Danny always refers to them both as Joint Managers.

Before joining Lincoln, he was working as a P.E. teacher and managing football teams part time and was far more successful than anybody could have expected.  With limited resources he had taken first Conchord Rangers and then Braintree Town as far as they could go before joining Lincoln and bringing his brother with him.

Lincoln City has spent most of its existence languishing in the lower leagues of English football, although there have been some periodic highs.  Those who are old enough to remember speak fondly of the skilled 1950s Lincoln team.  The 1970s team under the late Graham Taylor (who subsequently went on to manage Watford, Aston Villa and England [!!!]) also stands out and has achieved legendary status.  The Taylor period also represents the record for the points most acquired in a season by any team for the old 2 points for a win system  The mid 2000s marked a period of incredible near glory.  Under the late Keith Alexander Lincoln went from the verge of bankruptcy to reach the League Two Playoffs in 5 consecutive seasons (2003-2007).

That aside, the reality has often been much bleaker.  In 1987 they suffered the ignominy of being the first club to be relegated from the professional leagues to the non-professional or Conference League.  They immediately bounced back and just over a decade later in the 98/99 season they played in the third tier of English football (now confusingly called League One).  They were there at the same time as Manchester City and since then both clubs have gone in totally opposite directions.

At the end of the 11/12 season Lincoln found themselves relegated once more to the Conference League.  Trapped in this league the club was failing and aside from the diehards the fan base was dwindling.  Five torturous years had seen Lincoln finish mid-table and even flirt with another relegation with lacklustre performances and poor results.  Lincoln were going nowhere, or even worse they were going down.

It is fair to say that the club underwent some restructuring while in the doldrums, but the real catalyst for change was the arrival of the Cowley brothers in early summer 2016.

The changes were almost immediate and from the beginning of the following season Lincoln found themselves occupying higher positions in the Conference than had become the norm.

The pivotal game that changed everything came on 19th November 2016 when Lincoln were playing fellow promotion hopefuls Forest Green Rovers.  Lincoln found themselves 2-0 down with 65 minutes played and yet they turned it around and won 2-3 with the last two goals coming after the 89th minute.  This was a new Lincoln; more resilient with a never say die attitude that subsequently propelled them to promotion back to the professional leagues (incidentally Forest Green Rovers were also promoted that season –albeit through the playoffs).

Lincoln playing Forest Green Rovers in League Two - 3rd November 2018

However, aside from their success in the Conference Lincoln were also beginning to attract national media attention because of their exploits in the FA Cup.  They became the first non-league club in a century to reach the last 8 and disposed of two Championship (Tier 2) clubs and a Premier League Club on the way before finally coming undone against an Arsenal team that featured a number of top international players.

The following season (17/18) was a season that many thought should be a season of consolidation, but this didn’t match the Cowleys’ ambition.  Lincoln fell short of promotion at the playoffs, but won the Checkatrade trophy, a competition for League One and League Two Clubs.  In doing so Lincoln went to Wembley for the first time in their 134 year history and beat Shrewsbury Town who at that time were serious contenders for promotion to the Championship.

The following season (18/19) Lincoln made absolutely sure there were no slip ups and were on top of the league virtually all season and in May 2019 they were promoted to League One as League Two Champions.  In the new season they would be playing at a level they had not played at for 20 years.

The new season started in August 2019 and Lincoln started with two league victories before eliminating Huddersfield Town (who had been in the Premier League the previous season) in the League Cup.  The following weekend, 17th August, they brushed aside Southend United with an emphatic 4-0 victory and found themselves top of the league, the highest position they had occupied since February 1983.  In the league they had scored 8 goals, conceded none and got 9 points, a perfect return and a perfect start to the season.

So what has this got to do with Continuous Improvement?  The answer is simple.  After the Southend victory it would be easy for Danny (and Nicky) to sit back and relax.  The start to the season had been perfect and you can’t do better than that – or can you?

This is what Danny actually said after annihilating Southend United:

He was simply saying that while the outcomes thus far were perfect there was still room for improvement.  He could tweak the performance, change the process and drive progress.

This is Continuous Improvement in a nutshell!

Unfortunately Lincoln lost the next two games (which brings us to the time of writing), which makes Danny’s attitude towards Continuous Improvement even more essential. His approach will stand Lincoln in good stead, because while these performances have been described by many as good – despite the results – it is not enough for Danny and I am confident that at the very least Lincoln will not do what they did last time they played at this level – that is return immediately to League Two, which has been Lincoln’s home for most of its existence.

Danny and Nicky’s drive and desire for Continuous Improvement will not allow for failure and nor should we in the organisations we are associated with.

UPDATE - 12 September 2019

Two weeks after this article was written Danny and Nicky Cowley left Lincoln City to take up a managerial position at Championship club Huddersfield Town, (who they had recently knocked out of the League Cup with Lincoln just a few weeks earlier).  Again this shows their drive and desire and wish to test themselves at higher and higher levels.  A consequence of this has been a sense of a loss of momentum at Lincoln City, my hope as I write is that the foundations and structures they have put in place will see Lincoln through and Lincoln will continue to see bigger and better things in the coming years.

At the same time this change demonstrates Danny and Nicky Cowley's attitude to Continuous Improvement - rather now they are applying it to themselves and no longer to Lincoln City Football Club.

I can only wish them the best with the same sense of loss and regret that many in Lincoln are feeling.

Case Study 2: When Systemic Failure Prevails over Common Sense.

A number of years ago I took up a post in a higher education college and was responsible for approximately 200 MA students and a further 100 BA students in my subject area.  I had been onboarded by a fellow member of staff although the induction pretty much was an orientation session for the two buildings that the college was using.  Basically it seemed straightforward as the BA students were in one building and the MA students were in the other.  It was about a twenty minute walk between the two buildings and while this made two sessions in my timetable tight it was certainly doable.  The only other information that I was told was that I had to complete a timesheet by the end of the month and submit it to the accountancy office.

The end of my first month coincided with a long bank holiday weekend so I tried to submit my timesheet just beforehand and to my dismay the office was closed.  With no other alternative I had to submit it after the weekend.  The first opportunity I had was the 2nd of the following month.  In response I was simply told that I was too late and that I wouldn’t get paid until the following month.

I felt this was unfair as I had tried to comply and escalated it to my boss who listened and then responded by saying that all paperwork needs to be submitted by 26th of any given month.  This was news to me.  It hadn’t been mentioned during the induction and I protested that this was the first I had heard of this and perhaps an exception could be made this month and in the future I would ensure I met the 26th deadline.

I was taken aback by the response I got.  To paraphrase, ‘The system works generally and I am not changing it just because somebody has fallen through the gaps.’

Call me oversensitive if you like, but this is highly offensive and thoughts of paying my rent and surviving the month more than crossed my mind.  I had done my best, with the given information, to be compliant but I had met a rigid inflexibility that was giving no quarter.  Furthermore there were clear inadequacies in the onboarding procedure, but I am stopping short of blaming the staff member who did the induction.

The fact is that the induction simply wasn’t thorough enough and needed tightening up.  Maybe a simple handout with a calendar of crucial dates on it would suffice for future employees so the lessons could be learnt and the procedure improved?  Maybe a small handbook that included everything could become part of the onboarding?

As early as summer 1993 I had led a project and delivered training to 40 volunteers, each of whom received the information they needed, only differentiated by their specific roles.  They were each given a folder and I delivered training on two levels, the basic training that everybody required and then the specialised training that was tailored according to specific roles.  This specialised training was taken offline and only delivered to those who it applied to.

If I could do this as a young (I was 21 at the time), and relatively inexperienced worker, then more should be expected from a more mature organisation.

However, of greater concern was the attitude I got.  If there are gaps they need closing.  Continuous improvement demands action and systemic failure is the consequence of inaction.  Please note I never objected to the 26th deadline, my protestations centred around me not knowing this and therefore I should not be held to blame.  If I had been aware and not submitted the timesheet on time then of course the responsibility does rest with me.

'We are not changing' is a curse upon an organisation and a course for failure.

This kind of systemic failure and lack of drive for continuous improvement dooms an organisation to remain inflexible, unchanging and irrelevant.

As a final footnote to this case study my former boss has recently invited me back to cooperate with him on another project and while I politely declined I knew from the moment he engaged with me that there was no way I would ever again work with an organisation that he was leading.  This is the fallout and the damage done by a closed culture that refuses to change, be flexible or demonstrate continuous improvement in driving the organisation forward.

Thanks, but no thanks!


© Richard Horton, Omega Support Services 2019