The ONE Thing Successful CEOs Do to Create a Culture of Continuous Improvement

Joakim Ahlström, Author, How to Succeed with Continuous Improvement

The ONE Thing Successful CEOs Do to Create a Culture of Continuous Improvement

Imagine an organizational culture so strong you’d be certain to achieve your long-term objectives no matter what happens. Would you be willing to do ONE thing to make that culture reality?

            For managers at all levels of an organization time is a scarce commodity. I take this into account when they ask for my advice on how to develop an adaptable and continuously improving organization. This is what I tell them: "Ask your employees to always bring one improvement idea each to your recurring (weekly or monthly) meetings."

            This is advice I have stolen (with pride) from management guru Peter Drucker. To me it’s a small thing to ask but more often than not it’s met by objections. The first one usually sounds like this:

"That's not a good idea! Judging by the suggestions we normally get, it would only result in a heap of suggestions we would be forced to reject. And that would kill creativity."

            I respond to this objection by informing them that "bad ideas” is a sign that something is missing. My definition of an improvement is a solved problem, and my definition of a problem is the gap between where you are and where you want to be. A "bad improvement idea" is a sign of poor knowledge about how someone in his or her role can support the company in achieving its objectives.

            I also tell them not to be afraid to reject a portion of the suggestions. In organizations I have supported, we have had an implementation rate of 50 % as our lower limit and as long as at least half of all ideas are implemented and their results are highlighted I have never seen a negative effect on creativity. Though most managers follow this reasoning next objection often comes straight away:

"Even if I rejected half I wouldn’t have the time. If all my colleagues gave me one improvement idea at every meeting all my time would be consumed by trying to understand their suggestions and deciding on which ones to implement."

            This objection shows I have come to an organization where managers are bottlenecks in the improvement process. "It’s your colleagues who should make the decisions, not you," I explain. I also clarify that a high-performing improvement process is driven by all employees of the organization. Instead of making decisions in matters where the employees themselves are better suited, the manager should act as a coach and make sure everyone knows where they are headed, support those who have a hard time advancing and visualize progress to increase motivation.

"But what if they take a lot of stupid decisions or change things they do not have the authority to change?"

            "Well, wouldn’t that be great!" I usually respond. Few managers agree. Therefore I explain that the only difference from before would be that stupid decisions and people exceeding their authority are now coming to the manager’s attention. Now you will see where there’s a need for leadership, where there’s a need to clarify the priorities of the business and when to seek the expertise of certain persons. In other words, you know that your leadership has been successful when your colleagues tell you about valuable and already implemented improvement ideas at your meetings.

"But you know I don’t have much time. How can you expect me to have the time to break down and communicate objectives, support those who don’t move forward, visualize progress and clarify roles and responsibilities?"

            What else should you do? Isn’t that precisely the job of the manager?

            To start working with continuous improvement is like gradually revealing the need for leadership in an organization. Meeting that need is starting to develop a continuous improvement culture where people are target focused and aligned, where managers have time to focus on strategic issues instead of daily firefighting and where the improvement competence of the organization makes it adapt fast to changes in the surrounding world.

            Are you ready to take on this leadership challenge? If you are, here is my advice:

Make sure all managers (including yourself) ask their employees to always bring one improvement idea each to recurring (weekly or monthly) meeting.

About the Author

Joakim Ahlström is Sweden’s leading authority on creating a continuous improvement culture and the author of How to Succeed with Continuous Improvement: A Primer for Becoming the Best in the World, available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. For more information on Ahlström, visit