The Four Dimensions of Lean Culture™ – Continuous Improvement

Defining Continuous Improvement

Continuous Process Improvement (CI) has many definitions. Some people narrowly refer to CI as a set of tools for improving how work gets done. Others prefer a more broad description, defining CI as a philosophy that enables organizations to deliver maximum value to customers in the most efficient way possible.

Organizations that embrace the more comprehensive definition of CI understand that improvement efforts will result in long-term, sustained changes only when the use of CI tools are coordinated, standardized, and aligned with broader organizational objectives. Establishing common language and common practice enables people throughout the organization to quickly and effectively come together – across departmental and/or functional lines – to work as teams on improvement efforts that help move the organization forward toward the achievement of the strategic vision.

CI Tools Training and Projects

Improvement projects are where the value of CI comes to life. By using CI tools, such as those included in the Lean toolkit (see table below), organizations can investigate and improve the effectiveness and efficiency of any process. These techniques bring proven techniques for identifying waste and uncovering the root causes of errors, quality defects and unwanted variation.

The Lean Toolkit Lean provides a proven suite of tools and concepts for increasing efficiency and enhancing effectiveness Example Tools:

  • 5S
  • Kaizen Event
  • Spaghetti Chart
  • Process Walk/Gemba Walk
  • Value Stream Mapping
  • Value Analysis
  • Visual Workplace
  • One-Piece Flow
  • Batch Size Reduction
  • Standard Work
  • Pull Production
  • Kanban
  • Mistake Proofing (“Poke Yoke”)
  • Cell Layout


Agencies should expose all employees to the basic concepts of CI, and should train some employees to be “Lean experts,” capable of leading complex improvement projects.

When training employees on CI techniques, agencies should be sure that workshop participants come prepared to work on an actual project. Training combined with actual project work results in both a better learning experience for participants, and greater value generated for the organization and its customers.

CI Concepts for Leaders

“Those who do the work should improve the work” is a common mantra in Lean Cultures. As such, it makes sense to have front line employees take ownership for improvement projects. So where does that leave supervisors, managers and other leaders who aren’t directly involved with the daily work of delivering products or services? The mantra of “those who do the work should improve the work” still applies. It’s just that these leaders must use CI concepts to improve the work they do.

Beyond the core set of tools and techniques that comes to mind when most people think of Lean (see Lean Toolkit graphic), there’s another set of Lean tools and techniques commonly called Leader Standard Work that is designed specifically for improving the work of leaders.Leader Standard Work includes concepts such as:


  • Process Performance Boards/Tier Boards
  • Quad Charts
  • Kanban Boards
  • Idea Boards
  • Daily Management Boards
  • Pulse Point Maps
  • A3 Problem Solving
  • Huddle Meetings
  • Leaders Gemba Walks/Roundings
  • The Coaching Routine
  • The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership


CI Infrastructure

Thus far, agencies across Washington State have done a good job learning and applying Lean tools. Hundreds of Lean Practitioners have been trained, and many successful projects have been completed. However, a frequent comment Integris has heard from employees involved with Washington’s Lean efforts to date is that a high percentage of projects are not targeted at opportunities that are strategically relevant, and that there seems to be some misalignment between senior leadership, top-level objectives and project-level activities.

This scenario is common in the early stages of Lean implementation, as most organizations begin the CI journey by getting familiar with “tools” and completing some early “quick hit” improvement projects. These small wins can be quite valuable, as they can prove the relevance and applicability of CI techniques, providing motivation for the organization to invest greater amounts of time and resources in improvement efforts. But if CI is to be sustained over the long-term, organizations must implement CI infrastructure.

Continuous Improvement Infrastructure Every agency should have agreed upon methods for:

  • Prioritizing/selecting meaningful improvement opportunities
  • Tracking and managing the overall portfolio of projects
  • Communicating CI results to the broader organization
  • Monitoring and sharing key metrics that track progress of CI efforts
  • Defining clear CI roles and responsibilities for all employees
  • Establishing a Steering Team to provide oversight to CI efforts


Given the success of Washington’s Lean efforts thus far, the time may be right for many agencies to place greater emphasis on developing CI infrastructure. A thoughtfully designed CI infrastructure serves to keep improvement projects focused on areas that matter to the organization. Moreover, the infrastructure provides techniques for tracking the progress of improvement efforts, enabling the organization to assess what is working and what is not. Course corrections can be made when needed, and successes can be celebrated as they happen.

By establishing CI infrastructure, Washington agencies can continue to build momentum, get more employees connected to the Lean journey, and experience more impactful results from their Lean efforts – which all contributes to “turning the flywheel” of organizational change.

Four Dimensions

The Four Dimensions of Lean Culture is a highly effective framework for structuring holistic organizational change efforts. The model’s purpose is to provide a roadmap for building a healthier organization, where values and behaviors are aligned with the core principles of Lean Management, and where employees are engaged, customers are delighted and stakeholders are satisfied.

Customer-Focused Purpose

Why does your organization exist? If asked this question, would your leaders and employees all have a similar answer? Being clear about who you serve (your customer) and why can have an enormous impact on your business results. Study after study proves that when people are clear about their organization’s purpose, they are more engaged and more productive at work. They provide better customer service and the get passionate about improving the work they do.

Enterprise Alignment

Any group of people that wants to work together to achieve a shared objective needs to march in the same direction. This is true of any group of people, be it a sports team, an orchestra, a corporation or a government agency. People need to know where the group is going and every person needs to know what they are supposed to do to contribute to reaching the destination.

Cultural Enablers

Cohesive Teamwork; Effective Leadership; Meaningful Relationships – These are the organizational characteristics that enable a healthy culture to thrive. Without strong connections between people, the long-term results of any alignment or improvement efforts will be modest at best. When organizations focus energy on Cultural Enablers, everything else they do just works better.


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