Journey to Continuous Excellence

A simplified objective for the role of leader is to drive results for the organization and work every day to make things better. If this is true, results and improvements have to happen at every level. Senior leaders have to continually align to changing market conditions, management must align operations to company goals and mitigate risks, first line management must ensure results are delivered daily and value-adding staff must provide valuable service or product to the customer.

Working as an operations leader for many years taught me that driving for results is much easier than getting the organization to continuously improve. My training said push hard, reward good work, direct as necessary. Results were delivered as long as I kept my foot on the throttle. However, as my career was rewarded for results, my responsibilities expanded to other and bigger operations. I took my best people with me and what we left behind slowly regressed back to the mean. I had a choice, keep the pedal down and manage upward or find out what to do differently ensuring long term sustainable results. Better portfolio management, dashboards and metrics, Management by Objective, Total Quality Management, Six Sigma, Kaizen... tried them all over many years. Each tool or method delivered results, as long as I kept my foot on the throttle. Exciting changes happened but continuous improvement sustainability was still not “sticky” and a side effect became known as method changing fatigue.

Perhaps Lean was the right answer? Maybe. Applying Lean at Toyota was a 60+ year progression. They had those years (and continue) to slowly and carefully integrate their tools, systems and principles while constantly correcting. Very few organizations have that kind of time. So we took our shot at the best parts (i.e., Value Stream Mapping, Waste Management, Daily Huddles, Structured Problem Solving, Performance Boards, Visual Management and Strategy Deployment) and started to deploy. After countless failures but with constancy of purpose, we saw sustainability emerge! We condensed 60+ years into 6 years. This success was recognized by the Lean Enterprise Institute, specifically by John Shook and Jim Womack. Results were shared globally at the 2008 Lean Transformation Conference.

What have I learned since? What is a good way to tackle this mountain again?

In 2008, I left my SVP Operations role at one of our nations largest financial institutions to help other companies. Three core principles, commonly known and borrowed from the Lean world guide my efforts.

  1. Customer value must be known, protected and grown. Old-fashioned bottom-line cost cutting often cuts waste and value with impunity.

  2. Commitment to continuous improvement is required. If you make it an option, people will opt out because it seems harder. Change isn’t cuddly and warm.

  3. Developing people’s continuous improvement skills appropriate to their level and role is fundamental. If experts fix it, then experts own it. If every level is skilled and accountable, you can build sustainability.

It has been my experience that you have very little chance of sustainable momentum if you are missing any one of these three principles.

So is there a good way to approach such a lofty mission? I believe so and here are my recommendations:

  1. Make what “good” looks like somewhere in your organization. Demonstrate the basic components of a continuous improvement system functioning and growing within the model area.

  2. Get results in a short period of time - 90 days? While gaining further understanding of the necessary fast followers.

  3. Elicit the “good” from the people that do the work.

  4. Throughout the transformation, openly communicate what is happening in this model area/department as a way to de-mystify the change.

  5. Expand incrementally across the organization.

So how? My experiences have encouraged me to assemble actions that can act as a field guide to set foot on this path. The approach is the Customer Driven Value System™ (CDV System™ ), which incorporates six key strategies/steps:

  1. Strategic planning

  2. Build detailed business plans with metrics

  3. Prioritize your project portfolio based on customer value

  4. 90-day process transformation

  5. Begin deployment across the enterprise

  6. Annual strategy and deployment review – recycle / repeat

I’ll be writing more about this proven path and the details of how this system works in coming months. For more information on components of the system, you can visit our Customer Driven Value System page @

-Chris Vogel


Sharing Our Lean and continuous improvement insights through our experience and learning.