Driving Excellence Together: Insights from the Continuous Improvement Community Event


As part of our goal to share insights from lean experts to all corners of the globe, Kaizen Institute launched the Continuous Improvement Community, a dynamic networking and learning ecosystem. With a mission to elevate the practice of Continuous Improvement (CI) worldwide, this community serves as a platform for collaboration and sharing best practices.

The Continuous Improvement Community launch event featured four distinguished CI experts from various industries, each offering unique insights into CI’s present and future, addressing new challenges, and sharing valuable insights derived from cutting-edge knowledge and the latest trends in CI within business management.

This article dives into the key takeaways from these insightful presentations, shedding light on the transformative potential of continuous improvement practices in today’s evolving business landscape.

Jens Becker Insights

In this recent interview with Jens Becker, the Director of Global Operational Excellence at Benteler, we gained valuable insights into his journey with CI and its evolving role within the organization. With Benteler, Jens has driven lean transformation across the global plant network, instilling a continuous improvement mindset across all functions.

Embracing the Continuous Improvement Journey

Jens shared his CI journey, which began 15 years ago at a French industrial company. Initially involved in specific project assignments focusing on shop floor improvements, he gradually transitioned to leading the global CI team at Benteler. Jens expressed his passion for the holistic approach of lean and continuous improvement, emphasizing the integration of people, processes, and a broad learning journey.

The Changing Landscape of Continuous Improvement

As the business environment becomes increasingly volatile and complex, the meaning and application of CI have evolved. Jens emphasized that CI is indispensable in the automotive industry, where high-quality, cost-effective, and timely delivery is crucial. He highlighted the importance of embracing constant transformation and using CI frameworks to navigate change effectively. Furthermore, he noted a shift towards prioritizing people and culture in lean transformations, emphasizing communication, collaboration, and strategic alignment.

“In our industry, in the automotive business, it’s kind of indispensable, I would say, to live continuous improvement because the expectations are just so high in terms of quality, cost, and delivery, and they are ever-increasing.”

“The new normal of a company like ours is not anymore like be in balance and static and so on. It’s more of a constant transformation. And the CI framework, I would say, provides you really what it takes to navigate through these changes.”

The Role of Leadership in CI Implementation

Jens emphasized that leadership plays a pivotal role in CI implementation. Leaders must lead by example, coaching critical thinking skills, reinforcing discipline, and acting as role models on the shop floor. CI cannot be delegated solely to a CI expert team; leaders at all levels must actively engage in the transformation process. While developing lean leaders can be challenging, ongoing practice, reinforcement, and management focus are crucial to cultivating effective organizational leadership.

“There is this one element that really makes the difference in everything, and that is leadership. And leadership means coaching people in critical thinking skills, leadership means reinforcing discipline, asking for the desired, let’s say, work habits, acting like a role model with a presence on the shop floor, and living the processes that we preach, but what I also mean with leadership is that you cannot delegate continuous improvement to a CI expert team. That means, those guys, my team around the world, they’re important. They’re the knowledge owners. We can train and coach people on the methods and principles and everything. But the pull and the direction must really come from the leaders, and then I really mean the natural leaders in the company.”

CI’s Impact on Supply Chains

The disruptions faced by global supply chains in recent years have highlighted the need for robust CI practices. Jens acknowledged the challenges faced by Benteler during these crises and stressed the importance of crisis management. Looking ahead, he emphasized the role of CI in creating resilient supply chains by enabling quick problem-solving, establishing support networks, and continuously challenging paradigms. CI helps organizations navigate disruptions and gain a competitive advantage in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world.

Unleashing the Power of CI: Ownership and Accountability

Jens shared a crucial success factor for unleashing the power of CI: ownership and accountability. As organizations progress in their lean journeys and implement comprehensive management systems, ownership can become ambiguous. Jens explained that Benteler addressed this by establishing a measurable CI system, including a maturity level model. This system helped clarify accountability, ensuring that CI activities were owned and driven throughout the organization, ultimately leading to tangible improvements.

“I always say CI should not become like a hobby besides your real work. No, it must be really embedded in the roadmap of central functions, plans, on all entities. So therefore, ownership and accountability are very important. (…) Then leaders integrate this into their everyday life, and then they foster continuous improvement.”

“If you really want to unleash the power of CI, you need to engage that whole organization, for us, all the 20 000 people around the world, and for this, you need clear ownership and accountability to make it happen.”

Philip Sullivan Insights

Philip is the head of Continuous Improvement for Shell’s asset and business transformation. With over 30 years of experience across 75 countries, Philip shared valuable insights about his journey in CI and its relevance to Shell’s strategic challenges.

The Beginning of the Continuous Improvement Journey

Working at a car assembly plant in New Zealand, Philip witnessed the transformative power of CI in creating efficiency and happiness among employees. The experience instilled in him the core principles of CI, particularly respect for people and the engagement of employees to drive continuous improvement.

CI as an Enabler for Shell’s Strategic Challenges

While Shell’s primary focus is on providing energy, CI is an enabler for its long-term success. By equipping employees with CI skills and encouraging standardization and process improvement, Shell enhances the effectiveness and efficiency of their operations. This approach supports short-term needs, such as equipment availability and cost efficiency, and long-term goals, like transitioning to new energy sources and digitalization.

“What I think people have experienced over the last 20 years of being involved in CI is the huge value it creates. And so, I think as an enabler to our primary focus, which is providing energy short and long term.”

“The more we standardize and improve on standard ways of doing things, I think the better we get. And that supports both the short and long-term needs of the company.”

The Evolving Nature of CI

Philip emphasized the need for agility and integrated skills in the future of CI. As organizations face new challenges, there is a growing demand for collaborative problem-solving, change management, and systems thinking. CI practitioners must adapt and expand their skill sets beyond traditional CI methodologies to address the diverse and complex problems of the modern world.

“I think people experimenting, people trying things together, people getting together to do things, is proving incredibly powerful, and some of that’s associated with agile organizations, some of it’s associated with agile tools and methods, but the underlying principles are all CI, and it’s fundamentally about how do people come together to cooperate around problems.”

Prioritizing Problem-Focus Over Method Battles

Rather than focusing on specific methodologies, Philip stressed the importance of understanding the nature of the problem and selecting fit-for-purpose approaches. He highlighted the need to move away from method battles within organizations and instead foster a culture that encourages collaboration, critical thinking, and understanding of the underlying issues. This shift allows for more effective problem-solving and value creation.

“What I would love is what we’re starting to see now. Our leaders in Shell using CI often not being conscious that they’re using it. They’re actually starting to apply it in an unconscious way.”

CI’s Relevance in a Global Organization

Shell’s global presence poses unique challenges in maintaining CI relevance across diverse cultures and locations. Philip emphasized that while the core principles of CI remain consistent, it is crucial to respect and adapt to different cultural contexts. By leveraging cultural diversity within the organization, Shell can strengthen its business by incorporating situational approaches and empowering local teams to find the best solutions for their regions.

The Power of Engaging People

Engaging people is at the heart of CI’s success. Philip acknowledged that when individuals feel respected, valued, and empowered, they become catalysts for positive change. CI practitioners should simplify processes, remove barriers, and create an environment where people can experiment, learn, and collaborate effectively. By recognizing the impact of CI on individuals’ lives, organizations can tap into their hidden potential and unlock significant value.

“What we find is that when people start to understand it, you see the same light in people’s eyes, in every different culture, when they get it. (…) Because it goes back to that human value point, I mentioned at the start, that people, when they feel respected and feel properly used, I think that brings meaning to their lives.”

Peter Veltman Insights

Peter, a seasoned Continuous Improvement (CI) leader with over 35 years of experience, shared valuable insights into his journey and the evolution of CI within Philips, where he currently serves as the senior director responsible for Global CI efforts.

A Journey Fueled by Inspiration

Peter’s journey into CI began at Philips, where he initially worked in supply chain management and procurement. Through lean deployments with key suppliers and a transformative experience in Japan, Peter witnessed the immense potential for improvement and became passionate about CI. His enthusiasm extended beyond manufacturing and into the office and creative environments, ultimately driving a culture of continuous improvement throughout the company.

“We were also really lucky to be able to go on what we call a Kaikaku experience in Japan. So, we spent two weeks there going to a number of really good companies, including Toyota. We were able to speak to a number of Toyota executives, and that was such an inspirational event for me. And it was there that I basically kind of realized that, you know, how much more Improvement potential we have. What we saw there was mind-blowing, and ever since then, I’ve been completely passionate about continuous improvement.”

Aligning Strategy, Business, and CI

Peter emphasized the importance of aligning strategy, business objectives, and CI efforts within Philips. The company adopted a standardized performance management approach, cascading strategic plans and metrics throughout the organization. Business transformation leaders played a vital role in bridging the gap between strategy and CI, addressing specific issues within their respective areas. Daily management and problem-solving skills were also enhanced to support the achievement of business goals.

“What we’ve also done, I think, in the last couple of years, is to really focus on, you know, strengthening our daily management throughout the whole organization, and all of that is geared towards reaching the objectives that we’ve set throughout the whole of Philips.”

“The role of the business transformation leader is also to coach the other management team members in that (CI) thinking, and collectively basically then, something good can come out of that.”

Leadership Commitment as the Key

Peter stressed the critical role of leadership commitment in CI deployment. He cited Masaki Imai about the “three things” necessary for a successful lean journey: top management commitment, top management commitment, and top management commitment. Initially, Philips faced challenges with leadership buy-in, but through a comprehensive lean leadership training program, they instilled commitment from the Gemba level to the executive team. This training created a problem-solving culture and empowered leaders to become coaches, driving CI initiatives across the organization.

“I think your very own Masaki Imai said it really well when he said, you know, you have three things that you need for any lean journey, and the first one is top management commitment, and the second one is top management commitment, and of course, the third is also top management commitment. I couldn’t agree more with that statement.”

Innovation and CI

As an innovation-driven company, Philips experienced a shift towards digital solutions and a focus on software-based, connected offerings. This transformation required CI practices to adapt and support the changing landscape. Additionally, the company embraced virtual formats for training and events, leveraged global business services, and introduced continuous improvement as a service. Gamification and app-based tools were used to engage employees and apply learning to real-life business challenges.

The “2-6-2 Rule”

Peter introduced the “2-6-2 rule,” explaining that out of every ten leaders, two are quick to embrace change and become early adopters, while six may require more convincing. He cautioned against investing excessive time and effort in trying to convince the remaining two, commonly referred to as “CAVE people” (Citizens Against Virtually Everything), who are resistant to change. Instead, Peter recommended leveraging the enthusiasm of the two early adopters to showcase successful CI implementations. This, in turn, would inspire the six undecided leaders to join the CI journey, creating momentum and a positive influence. Surprisingly, Peter noted that even some initially reluctant “cave people” could transform into strong promoters once they witnessed their colleagues’ success.

Bob Emiliani Insights

Bob is an accomplished leadership analyst and a multi-book author. He has dedicated his career to studying areas of leadership and management that others ignore. With over 30 years of industrial management research and full-time teaching experience, Bob is highly regarded for his thought-provoking writing and speaking. In this recent interview, Bob Emiliani shared his thoughts on the role of Kaizen in creating a sustainable world.

Powerful Method for Environmental Sustainability

Bob highlighted one of the main aspects of Kaizen’s contribution to sustainability: its ability to achieve environmental sustainability effectively. While technology is vital in reducing resource consumption and emissions, Kaizen complements these efforts by engaging employees and stakeholders in continuous improvement practices. By optimizing processes, eliminating waste, and considering the environmental impact of activities across the organization, Kaizen becomes a low-cost, high-impact approach to sustainability.

Expanding the Focus of Continuous Improvement

For several decades, the focus of Kaizen has primarily centered on economic benefits. However, Bob also stressed the need to expand this focus to encompass social and environmental benefits. To fully realize the potential of continuous improvement, it is essential to engage companies, workers, communities, and societies.

“I think we need to expand our focus greatly and realize the social and environmental benefits of continuous Improvement as well and also recognize that Kaizen is really the lowest cost and highest impact method for sustainability.”

Kaizen, Sustainability, and Cost Reduction

Bob addressed the misconception that sustainability efforts inevitably lead to increased costs. He emphasized that organizations that have been leaders in sustainability find significant cost savings by implementing Kaizen ideas. While an initial investment may exist, the benefits outweigh the costs. By harmonizing economic activity with the environment, organizations gain a competitive advantage, not solely based on costs and prices, but also through improved efficiency and resource utilization.

“It’s a huge opportunity to broaden the scope of Kaizen into the domain of environmental sustainability.”

Concrete Steps Towards Sustainability

Bob recommends enhancing Kaizen practices to reduce resource consumption across all organizational areas, promoting sustainability. Engaging the entire workforce in Kaizen is crucial, going beyond operational levels to unlock the potential for continuous improvement. Enthusiastic communication is vital in sharing sustainability achievements and employee ideas with the media, stakeholders, and politicians. This boosts awareness and support for Kaizen’s role in achieving environmental sustainability alongside emerging technologies. Broadening the scope of improvement activities and fostering employee enthusiasm contributes to a sense of pride and ownership in environmental sustainability efforts.

Conclusion and Next Initiatives

The launch of the CI Community marked a significant milestone in the continuous improvement journey, bringing together passionate individuals who are dedicated to embracing and advancing the practice of CI. With insights shared by industry experts, the event showcased the potential of CI in transforming organizations and driving sustainable growth. As Kaizen Institute continues to spearhead this movement, they invite CI enthusiasts worldwide to join hands in shaping the future of continuous improvement, collaboratively driving excellence. By continuously nurturing and expanding the CI Community, Kaizen Institute aims to create a global ecosystem where CI enthusiasts can thrive, driving excellence and positively impacting organizations and societies worldwide. New initiatives will be announced soon

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