The 5 key Challenges of continuous improvement

Given how some of the primary targets of continuous improvement is its focus on removing waste and driving change within organizations it is somewhat of a surprise that many large organizations still find business improvement projects such a significant challenge and despite tools like 8d templates, 5s tool, value stream mapping being widespread results

From the start, it is important to understand that businesses cannot remove all waste from activities from within the workplace, unfortunately, some of them remain a necessity even though your customer may not be willing to pay for them. For example, project planning or KPI reporting can be considered an activity that your customer won’t pay for but both are a necessity for the successful completion of a product. So Continuous improvement must be strategic in that it must pick the right battles.

The other factor is that your business is unlikely to have an endless supply of resource/funding and therefore continuous improvement gets thrown into the same pot as everything else in terms of fighting for funding and support.

If we go back to the Toyota production system it demonstrated that a focus on defining efficient processes within the workplace can bring about the best results, defining three key influences that can impact work processes:

1/ Muda – Waste (The Toyota system categorised seven types of waste within the lean system they are: Inventory, Waiting, Defects, Overproduction, Motion, Transportation, Over-processing)

2/ Muri – overburden

3/ Mura – unevenness

All businesses will be able to interpret the seven rules of waste into their own organization and no business will be without some opportunity to improve so why does Continuous Improvement fail to deliver in some companies?

Below we’ll list out 5 key reasons why continuous improvement projects fail.

1/ Support from the top

First, go read Mark Graban’s excellent article on the subject here (

Leadership is often the pivot in change programs they often supply the

  • Funding/Resources
  • Sponsorship
  • Goal/Target
  • Motivation through communication

While Mark’s article dips into the issues caused by not selling the problem statement clearly enough to get leadership buy-in there are other issues at play. Perhaps there may be more pressing programs that require focus, perhaps the gains of a particular continuous improvement project may not be as much as doing something else.

The worst sin of management is that they see continuous improvement as a checkbox to tick and then move on. Despite often concrete evidence behind improvement ideas (5 why’s etc) Management can often see themselves as “knowing better” and overruling improvement suggestions – this can kill employee feedback dead in its tracks as they feel unloved.

Without clear, regular leadership support, your improvement plans are going to struggle.

What to do:
So how do you counter a lack of support? It’s often down to “Selling” your idea. Ask yourself the following questions:

Is the change important (i.e. does it affect strategic vision, does it have a significant impact, Does the change add real, demonstrable value, is it something that easy to communicate to the organization?).

Also, does your management understand the improvement? – while you may live and breath the problem (it’s your baby after all), can you put the concept across simply and succinctly? Or does it require Encyclopedia Britannica to understand it? Part of the act of selling the issue is that you’ll need to convey it so that you can obtain the support – if people don’t really get it – support will be limited.

The other question you have to ask yourself is are your goals/plan realistic – again this can be a tough question – of course, you see the benefits and believe in your plan but sometimes you can be so close to it that your plan doesn’t really pass scrutiny. A great idea is nothing without the plan to back it up!

2/ A Clear Goal
OK, this one seems obvious but how many times have you seen a business embark on a change program trying to fix a range of issues/problems without a clear vision of how the futures going to look. In this case, KPI’s are great they offer a vision of the past, a statement of where you are now and can provide you with a vision of where you want to get to. However don’t JUST rely on KPI’s. Change is often incremental and this can often get lost in KPI’s (i.e. it’s not obvious enough).

For the “goal” bit, leadership must be involved. They must buy into the target and sponsor the vision (and the route of how you’re going to get there).

What to do:
This part requires lots of time and thinking. Do not skip this part! Make sure that your goal is realistic (both in target achieved and timescale) before you even attempt to sell your project.

3/ Use of appropriate tools

Given the right use of tools and techniques, you can empower your own resources to explore the business and help find wastes and the root causes for them.

However, you can’t just fire and forget (i.e. provide tools and then expect them to be successful). In his excellent piece on Pitfalls in 5s Mr Saranapala makes the point that despite the convenience and apparent simplicity of many of the tools (his piece focuses on 5s, they are not necessarily easy and employees require appropriate mentoring and support (that takes resource/time).

Of course, all this starts with the right training on the right tools. Without this, it’s a little like trying to change a car tire with a lightbulb. The intentions are good but the end result is never going to be successful.

What to do:
As part of the planning for the improvement project consider what needs changing, who will do it and how they will do it (especially if you’ll do it in steps). There’s a whole range of tools out there and think really hard about what’s right/suitable for the job. Think about your resources and whether or not they are skilled in these tools. If not how you will get them trained ahead of requirement.

4/ Consistency & Commitment
Ahhh those heady days of beginning a project….your path to glory is in front of you, everything looks so simple you just want to get going. Then several weeks/months into it and reality sets in and the problems you were not anticipating have reared there head and all of a sudden you have a mountain to climb.

This is where the consistent application of your improvement method + consistent leadership support is crucial. History is littered with many well-intended improvement projects that got too tough and died an untimely death. This is unfortunate for a number of reasons not only because the target may not have been achieved but it also tells a story to the rest of the business that perhaps continuous improvement isn’t as great as it thinks it is and perhaps the on the next project won’t get the same level of buy-in.

Long-term Continuous improvement projects MUST have consistent leadership support and commitment from the team. phew…there we go we said it, easier to say than to do I know.

What to do:
Firstly get your plan right. Know what you’re going to do, how your going to do it and when.

Secondly get regular reviews in the diary to assess progress (and issues that will crop up along the way).

Thirdly – consider the incremental improvements your’ likely to see during your project so that you have something to track your progress against (if your change REALLY doesn’t offer incremental change then look at your project baseline to consider how you will mark progress.
Fourthly – reward your team and those supporting the change. Regular pats-on-the-back are more likely to drive continual buy-in from those that you need support from.

5/ Kill the bureaucracy.

OK so let’s face it all organizations have levels of bureaucracy – rules and procedures that must be followed, however, organizations need to consider how these can hinder (or support) business change. Indeed, organizations can become bogged down by bureaucratic mindset, which either resists change or looks to penalize those who suggest it.

What to do
Bureaucracy can be hard to fight. Before you commence your change initiative consider the process that you have to follow to implement it. Consider doing a stakeholder assessment and look to spot those naysayers early on and develop a plan on how you will tackle them.

Also, consider how you utilize company leadership to help you slay unnecessary processes that may help you deliver your benefits early. Don’t be afraid of pointing out what doesn’t work in their organization and asking for help (But don’t be surprised if those processes are there for a good reason!).


So Continuous improvement projects are vital to the ongoing success of most businesses but they are not without their problems as we’ve covered in this article.

Ultimately you have to put yourself in the seat of a salesman and ensure you understand the product (your project) that you’re looking to sell internally within your company. The process isn’t difficult just follow these steps:

Find the required change
Plan the change at a high-level
Get the buy-in
Track against your goal
Follow up

….But without due care and attention to the business and its stakeholders around you can be.

As ever we’d love your feedback. Do you face an uphill struggle in your organization? Have tips or tricks you’d like to share? As ever our feedback below is ready and waiting!