Creating an improvement culture in your organisation

Many institutions still rely on outside experts to drive change, despite the wealth of resources that can help to embed a culture of continuous improvement. Katy Theobald of the consultancy 2020 Delivery sets out five lessons learned from universities that have embraced continuous improvement techniques.

Across the public sector, organisations are pushing to improve the quality and efficiency of services. There are plenty of publicly available resources to inspire and inform the process of organisational improvement, yet many institutions still rely on outside experts to drive the change.

The higher education sector faces an ever-growing efficiency challenge. We spoke to four higher education institutions that have embraced continuous improvement techniques, using them to improve the quality of services while also increasing efficiency, and asked them to share their learning about what it takes to establish a continuous improvement culture and to sustain it independently.

Lessons learned:

  1. Build capability: Whether you employ individuals with appropriate expertise or invest in training for existing staff, you cannot start from scratch when establishing a continuous improvement culture in your organisation. It takes knowledge and experience to apply improvement methodologies effectively. It takes strong influencing skills to foster cultural change. Your staff will need all of these things before they can work independently.
  2. Quality not costs: Although finances may be a motivating factor when leaders pursue a continuous improvement agenda, they are rarely an effective motivator for individuals ‘on the ground’. Focusing instead on quality improvements will boost staff engagement and may still result in efficiencies in the long term.
  3. Governance: Improvement teams need senior support to instil confidence in their methods and encourage staff to engage. Association with the right leaders is key. Sponsorship from a finance director implies a focus on costs, so teams are likely to be more effective if their support – at least overtly – comes from elsewhere.
  4. A cultural change: Whether process improvement work begins with a single team of experts or individuals across many departments, the end aim is to have everyone in the organisation engaged in continuous improvement. This needs a long term vision for the organisation. Knowledge and expertise must be spread intentionally. A safe environment must be established, where everyone is open to feedback and change.
  5. Take time: While individual improvements can be delivered quickly, achieving a culture of continuous improvement takes time. Where process improvement teams are effective, they have been allowed the time to learn, experiment and demonstrate ‘proof of concept’ before pursuing a broader agenda.

Katy Theobald is a senior consultant with 2020 Delivery, a consultancy that supports public sector organisations to develop cultures of continuous improvement.