9 Behaviors to Start and Sustain an Improvement Culture

by Nawras Skhmot

5th August 2017

It is not surprising that culture is contagious. Your company’s culture sets the standards and expectations for everyone. The actions that you take each and every day speak louder than words and it is consistent behaviors over time that reinforces the culture. Due to its importance, managers must be cognizant and careful about how their behaviors impact the organization’s culture. Here are 9 behaviors that can help start and sustain a continuous improvement culture.

1) Listen more

Most leaders have the misconception that they can solve all problems and challenges in their companies. As businesses become larger and more complex, leaders need to depend on their employees, partners, and customers to innovate and overcome new challenges. A good leader is often a good listener. They are aware of the experience and capabilities of their team and uses this resource to further the organization. They are not afraid to ask questions, are always curious, and are willing to learn from someone less senior in the organization. When listening, they always have a purpose and problem in mind. For example, they might solicit advice to improve strategy, execution, or processes.

2) Treat employees with respect

Respect is the most important trait of a Lean and continuous improvement culture. Respect should extend both ways. On one end, the leader needs to respect the work, value, and contributions of their team. On the other end, employees need to respect the experience and value that their leaders bring. One way of showing respect is to better understand and acknowledge people. Know what motivates your team and be curious about their lives outside of work. Another way of showing respect is by not wasting people’s time. Before starting any meeting, make sure that you do the proper preparation to ensure that everyone gets the most value out of it.

3) Be willing to fail

Applying Lean and continuous improvement is not always easy. In fact, it is very difficult at first and will require a steep learning curve. Part of what makes continuous improvement great and difficult is the shift in mindset. The organization needs to accept that not all proposed ideas will work. Rather than requiring all ideas be successful, think about the positive impact to your organization if just 50% or 10% of the ideas work. By approaching your continuous improvement program through a scientific approach, you can more objectively test new ideas. If an experiment failed, try to reflect deeply on why it failed and use that lessons learned to improve future experiments.

4) Create reliable behaviors

Making and keeping reliable promises is an important prerequisite to building trust. By being reliable in your words and actions, you can give others confidence and allow them to depend on you. As a result, your team will increase their trust in you and in each other. This will ultimately lead to faster communication and more innovations. Conversely, unreliable commitments can lead to uncertainty, miscommunication, and chaos. If people need to adjust their expectations due to unreliable commitments, the organization can never move quickly and capitalize of fast changing market opportunities.

5) Seek improvements all the time

Great leaders know that there is always room for improvement. They actively seek out opportunities for improvement and are not afraid to get their hands dirty. The only way to sustain a continuous improvement culture is to challenge everyone in the organization to come up with ideas each and every day. Over time, this will create a habit in the organization and change worker’s perspective about the responsibilities of their job. Rather than just doing their job, they are also responsible for actively improve it.

6) Be supportive

A leader’s role is to support and empower their team. If a team member does not have the right knowledge and training to do his job; it’s the leader’s job to provide the resources for them. If the team is unable to come up with improvement ideas, the leader needs to understand the root cause of the barriers that are preventing them from doing so. Sometimes the problem can stem from a lack of training, confidence, or organizational incentives. Additionally, when an improvement idea does not work out it is also the leader’s job to help people acknowledge the failure, learn from the process, and move on to the next idea. A great leader should be supportive of their teams in both good times and in bad times. It is often how a leader handles the most challenging times that sets the tone for the organization’s culture.

7) Measure results

A continuous improvement program needs to have reasonable goals and objectives. It is the leader’s role to set these goals collaboratively with their team and to communicate them with the rest of the organization. Every improvement idea needs to be qualitatively or quantitatively assessed in terms of its impact on the organization. By measuring the impact of each improvement, the organization is able to create a history log of the impacts of their continuous improvement program. This information can be used to train new employees and to inspire existing employees to look for ways to improve their work processes.

8) Recognize and reward

Most employees embark on continuous improvement for social recognition rather than financial incentives. By celebrating and rewarding successes, leaders can build a stronger sense of community, belonging, and cohesion in the organization. As more and more employees are recognized for their positive impact, they will take the continuous improvement process more seriously. This can unleash people’s inner competitiveness drive to come up with the best ideas.

9) Live the experience first

Before starting a continuous improvement program, leaders need to understand and experience it first. By living the experience first, leaders can understand the challenges that their employees will face. Additionally the leaders can proactively prepare resources to help their team overcome obstacles. By understanding the challenges ahead, leaders can develop more realistic expectations for their continuous improvement program. Furthermore, employees will have more confidence when following a program that has been successful in the past.

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Nawras Skhmot, is a Norwegian civil engineer and entrepreneur with an educational background from The Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) and UC Berkeley. He is currently working on applying Lean Construction in the Norwegian construction industry, in addition to be involved in several startups that aims to develop softwares and applications based on lean thinking.