The Three Pillars of a Successful Improvement Culture

pillar.jpgWelcome to the Improving Leadership Blog. I’m looking forward to generating some interesting conversations about the role of leaders in building an improvement-oriented culture.

In this first post, I’d like to introduce you to the basic framework that I will be using to generate discussions. This should provide you with a general idea of the topics that I will cover and why they matter.

As Simon Sinek would suggest, let’s start with why.

We live in a rapidly changing world. In order for our organizations to succeed in this environment, we must be capable of adjusting quickly to changing circumstances. If we don’t adjust, changing technologies, customer expectations, or competitive landscapes will reduce our effectiveness, possibly to the point of failure.

This ability to rapidly and continually adjust is naturally present in organizations that have a mature culture of organizational excellence.  When this type of culture is firmly established, it can result in a long-term sustainable competitive advantage.

What is organizational excellence?

Organizational excellence refers to organization-wide efforts to constantly improve systems and processes to ensure consistently superior outcomes.

One of the basic prerequisites for developing this capability is a culture in which everyone is engaged in the pursuit of excellence. There are many aspects of this form of engagement that we will explore over time, but the primary characteristic is that the talents of every employee are leveraged to not only perform their work, but also to improve it. Leadership of this type of an organization requires a special set of skills and qualities to create the necessary culture.

Effective improvement cultures share three key traits that help to ensure their sustained success.

The Three Pillars

There are many different frameworks that are used to pursue organizational excellence.  Lean Management, the Baldridge Excellence Framework, Continuous Quality Improvement (CQI), and the Shingo Model are a few well-known examples.

Despite the different names and formatting, all effective improvement frameworks have significant similarities. As a result, the same key attributes are necessary for the creation of the supporting culture.

As Mark Graban states of lean management, “Lean is an organizational culture that develops from an integrated system of tools, management practices [leadership behaviors], and philosophy.”1

Each of these three key aspects must be developed to ensure the successful creation of any culture of organizational excellence.


Our work is shaped by the capabilities and limitations of the tools available to us. This includes not only the physical tools and equipment in the work space, but also templates, checklists, software and other technology. The tools that define a culture include anything that is used to perform or support the work of the organization.

If the right tools are present, a culture can develop in which improvement is commonplace, processes and communications are efficient, and work is performed consistently.  Employees have what they need to perform their work without having to recreate the wheel or improvise their own solutions.

Without the proper tools, performance will be unreliable, improvement will not spread quickly or consistently, and employees are often left frustrated and burned out.

Leadership Behaviors

Actions speak louder than words. In order for a culture to firmly take root in an organization, the actions of leadership must be in line with the desired changes. David Mann correctly observed that “success requires a change in mindset and behavior among leadership, and then gradually throughout the organization.”2

Sustainment requires energy and resources provided by leadership to drive the desired organizational behaviors. If the desired behaviors are not consistently exhibited, reinforced, and rewarded by leadership, the culture will not stick.


Developing any kind of culture is never a quick endeavor. It is a long journey that requires perseverance and a focus on a long-term vision. Throughout the ups and downs of this journey, it is important to have a consistent philosophy to use as a reference point.

The chosen philosophy is an unmoving target that can inform the many decisions that individuals must make. When it is consistently followed, everyone in the organization will continue to move in the same direction, even if there are some differences in their behaviors and choices.

Without a long-term improvement philosophy, it is too easy fall into the flavor-of-the-month trap.  The challenges of a changing environment, leadership turnover, or impatience can lead to frequent changes in direction for the organization.  If this occurs too often, it can prevent the desired culture from taking root and maturing.

What’s next?

The focus of this blog will primarily be on leadership behaviors.  However, due to the integrated nature of these attributes, there will be some crossover into the other areas. The next few posts will dive into each of these areas in more detail.


1Lean Hospitals: Improving Quality, Patient Safety, and Employee Engagement, Second Edition – Mark Graban

2The Missing Link: Lean Leadership – David Mann

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