Cultural and operational transformation: Excellence in efficiencyv

Case Study

Cultural and operational transformation: Excellence in efficiency


The company

South East Water is a company that stands out in the British water supply sector. It focuses on supplying drinking water without dealing with wastewater treatment, a common sector in this industry. It serves the needs of over 2.1 million customers.

The company’s infrastructure operates a complex network that boasts approximately 14,500 kilometers of pipes strategically segmented into two distinct regions: the western and the eastern. This geographic segmentation underscores the company’s commitment to managing efficient, localized resources and services.

At the heart of the company’s operations are 83 treatment stations, each playing a key role in the daily water supply to its vast customer base, ranging from 500 to 530 megaliters. Furthermore, the company prides itself on having a diverse combination of water sources, noting that this diversity and the treatment processes reflect adaptability and a pledge to quality in service delivery.

South East Water’s organizational structure is designed to ensure customer satisfaction and seamless operation. With this in mind, the Operations department, a key area in the company, oversees a range of activities, from groundwater extraction to treatment processes, through distribution via the pipe network to resolving customer issues, including repairs and maintenance.

A closer look at one of the group’s facilities shows the complexity and efficiency of the water treatment process. Here, water is extracted from wells, and the treatment process involves aeration and adding chlorine for disinfection, followed by filtration to enhance water purity. After that, the water is stored in retention tanks before being sent to reservoirs and, finally, reaching the customers’ taps.

Due to its vast operational scale, various types of water sources, and sophisticated treatment processes, this company stands out as an example of efficiency and commitment in the UK’s water supply sector, emphasizing its crucial role in supplying clean and safe drinking water to millions of people.

The challenge

South East Water faced a series of complex challenges that required a comprehensive reassessment of its operational strategies and practices.

Operational efficiency and team accountability

A critical challenge was to improve the sense of responsibility and performance of field teams. Thus, the company sought to enhance how these teams understood the importance of their roles and how they were connected to central operations and planning functions. This issue was compounded by the need to transition from a functional approach in operations to a geographically centered model, posing significant logistical and coordination challenges as a result.

Shutdowns and equipment efficiency management

Operational challenges focused on managing shutdowns and ensuring the continuous operation of essential equipment. The need to monitor and optimize efficiency in task completion while balancing employee requests and budgetary constraints also adds another layer of complexity to the operational landscape.

Maintenance of standards and facility responsibilities

Another challenge was maintaining operational standards, ensuring these were consistently upheld, especially with third-party interactions on-site. This was further complicated by the need to instill a culture of accountability among facility owners.

Cultural shift toward continuous improvement

One of the more subtle yet encompassing challenges was promoting a cultural shift among technicians, namely, moving toward a continuous improvement mindset and daily involvement in operational improvements, as well as overcoming the inertia of established practices and encouraging open, ongoing discussions about operational issues.

Coordination and communication between facilities

The company struggled with facilitating effective coordination and communication; different technicians had trouble accessing each other’s facilities and efficiently addressing on-site issues. This challenge was exacerbated by geographic dispersion, making problem-solving across multiple locations more complex.

The approach

In response to the challenges faced, the company implemented a focused and strategic approach to enhance overall performance and operational efficiency. This approach centered on introducing KAIZEN™️, optimizing communication, and fostering a continuous improvement culture.

Integrating KAIZEN™️

After selecting a pilot site to implement this new methodology, the initial phase involved daily meetings where team members engaged in workshop-style discussions to understand and fully integrate continuous improvement principles into the processes. This initiative proved crucial in ensuring everyone’s commitment and paved the way for subsequent implementation phases.

Structured communication and team involvement

Structured meetings were established to bridge the communication gap between technicians and management, involving regular interactions at various levels – from frontline technicians to regional managers up to top management. These meetings were held frequently to ensure speedy communication and immediate attention to emerging issues. This structure was vital in facilitating proactive countermeasures and promoting a sense of commitment and responsibility among team members.

Improving operational efficiency through 5S and visual management

Adopting 5S practices and visual management was a significant part of the approach. These practices brought key benefits such as:

  1. Consistency in work practices by ensuring all team members followed the same high standards and efficient workflows;
  2. Organizational efficiency by emphasizing the importance of everything being in its proper place, simplifying operations, and reducing time waste;
  3. Maintaining high standards became particularly important for sustaining quality control and ensuring compliance, especially when interacting with visitors or external entities.

Notably, these practices were applied at the pilot site and extended to other regions, demonstrating a company-wide commitment to operational excellence.

Embracing a continuous improvement culture

One of the overarching goals was to encourage a continuous improvement culture among technicians. This cultural shift aimed to empower them to take responsibility for their facilities and operations, moving from a reactive operational model to a more proactive and efficient one. By involving technicians in the decision-making process and giving them visibility into the impact of their actions, the company cultivated a more engaged and responsible workforce.

Future projects and alignment across the entire organization

The company acknowledged the relevance of extending KAIZEN™️ practices beyond the initial pilot project. Plans were made to incorporate these practices into other geographical regions and operational areas, such as loss management and engineering, to improve processes and efficiency across the entire company.

The results

Outcomes of the KAIZEN™️ methodology

Implementing the KAIZEN™️ philosophy in the defined pilot area and expanding it to other sites brought significant improvements in the company’s operations. The success of the project showed in various aspects, from tangible operational efficiencies to intangible cultural changes.

Improvement in visual mapping and facility accountability

Introducing visual mapping marked a significant advancement in operational transparency and consistency. This approach provided a detailed visual guide of site responsibilities, such as visual maps detailing specific tasks and standards for each area, like labeled filtration tanks. This level of detail allowed anyone visiting the site, regardless of frequency, to understand and perform the required tasks consistently. This visual guidance system was highly effective in maintaining operational continuity, especially during staff absences or emergencies.

Improvement in maintenance and performance at facilities

The project’s tangible results showed improved maintenance and performance. Key improvements included:

  • Order and cleanliness: the facilities recorded a considerable improvement in tidiness and cleanliness, indicating adherence to standards and efficiency.
  • Performance metrics: through a centralized mission control room, the company could track and compare performance metrics across regions, allowing a consistent approach in reporting and focusing on valuable KPIs such as unplanned shutdowns and emergency calls.
  • Operational inefficiencies reduction: by closely monitoring and addressing these metrics, the company observed a decrease in unplanned shutdowns and maintenance times, leading to more efficient and reliable operations.

Cultural shift

There was a marked shift in organizational culture, with employees becoming more proactive and accountable. This change was a transition from a passive, reactive approach to a more dynamic, engaged work ethic.

Employee involvement

Team involvement in daily practices resulted in better engagement and empowered them to identify and solve problems independently. This involvement contributed to a more collaborative and proactive work environment.

Problem-solving approach

Before implementing the Kaizen project, delaying or ignoring problems was common, as they were considered hard to solve. However, the new improvement culture mindset encouraged problem identification and resolution, facing issues head-on.

Expansion to other regions and standardization

Putting this model into practice in the western region showed how scalable and adaptable the approach is. This expansion brought:

  • Consistent operational standards: the success in the chosen pilot area served as a model for other regions, ensuring an operating standard across the company.
  • Learning and adaptation: experiences and lessons from the pilot project were crucial in adapting the approach to different regional contexts, ensuring effective implementation.


With the strategic KAIZEN™️ implementation in the pilot area and its subsequent expansion to other regions, this case study serves as a great example of the power of adaptive change and continuous improvement in operations. The journey from initial challenges to rolling out new practices and witnessing both tangible and intangible results captures a transformative process that reshaped the company’s operational landscape and fostered a profound cultural shift within the workforce.

At the heart of this transformation was the integration of detailed visual mapping and structured communication channels, which acted as key drivers for increased operational efficiency and clarity. However, the most striking outcome of this initiative was the cultural shift it instigated. The company cultivated a proactive work environment by empowering employees through involvement in the continuous improvement process.

In conclusion, the journey of this corporate group illustrates how structured change management, combined with a commitment to continuous improvement, can lead to substantial improvements in operational efficiency and employee engagement. This example serves as a model for other organizations aspiring to excellence in their operational processes and corporate culture, highlighting the profound impact of embracing adaptability and advancing a collaborative and empowered workforce.

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