Which Is the Most Important Factor in Building and Sustaining a Successful Continuous Improvement Business System?

Which Is the Most Important Factor in Building and Sustaining a Successful Continuous Improvement Business System? Blog Image

Many firms constantly seek the ideal organizational structure for a successful continuous improvement (CI) Business System. Questions are asked around the optimal resource allocation between Corporate and Division or Regional resources, how many and what type of resources are needed, what are their responsibilities, and how should they be deployed across the organization? Many global businesses utilize a two-tiered approach, with a Corporate CI team alongside Division or Business Unit (BU) resources.

But in reality, the organization structure is only one critical element of a successful CI business system. Leadership and culture play equally impactful roles in its success.

This blog explores the three key elements that contribute to a successful CI Business System: organization design, leadership, and culture. While effective organization design ensures resources are allocated strategically, strong leadership provides the vision and direction to drive CI initiatives. Finally, a supportive culture fosters an environment where innovation thrives and employees feel empowered to solve problems and embrace change.

The question we’ll ultimately answer: Which of these three pillars is most important? Read on to discover why all three are essential for building a truly winning Business System.

Organization Design

The structure of an organization significantly impacts its ability to implement and sustain continuous improvement (CI) initiatives, ultimately driving desired performance. Typically, Corporate Business System offices are lean, with a limited number of resources to support the entire organization. Often, these teams focus on expanding the company’s CI toolbox by collaborating with external consultancies (like NEXT LEVEL Partners®, LLC) to introduce new tools and uplevel the organization. They act as Centers of Excellence, elevating the organization’s capabilities in strategic areas, benchmarking against industry leaders, and improving key processes. These Corporate CI resources also play a significant role in due diligence and integration of newly acquired companies.

In contrast, Division and Business Unit (BU) level organizations house the operational excellence resources responsible for executing CI initiatives that deliver significant operational gains. CI leaders in these units often partner with Operations Directors and align themselves with specific manufacturing sites or P&Ls to maximize impact. These CI leaders diagnose issues with value stream mapping, and create and execute the kaizen roadmap to deliver the identified performance improvement goals. Companies who build in annual stretch targets for cost-outs and KPI improvement often have the most effective CI efforts because they are aimed at achieving out-sized performance goals.

A well-organized Business System structure effectively and dynamically allocates resources, directing them to areas with the greatest need and closest to the point of impact (often referred to as “Gemba” in Lean terminology). Clear roles and responsibilities are defined, and communication channels are established to ensure best practices and learnings are shared across divisions and regions. Successes are trumpeted throughout the organization. The organization maintains a regular schedule of operating reviews, utilizing stretch key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure success and identify areas for improvement.


Leadership is undeniably critical to the success of any business system. The CEO plays a pivotal role by setting the vision, championing CI initiatives, and mandating continuous improvement across the entire organization. Senior executives who actively embrace CI demonstrate this commitment by asking insightful questions and establishing ambitious performance expectations that can only be met with the kind of structured problem-solving that a business system provides. These actions empower teams to solve problems and innovate, leading to exceptional results.

Active and servant leadership behaviors are key. By regularly reviewing Kaizen results and personally attending Gemba walks, leaders “walk the talk” and inspire their teams to achieve ever-higher levels of performance. Going further, leaders who reserve a portion of their time to participate in Kaizen activities (e.g. President’s Kaizens) show a powerful example of the importance of continuously embracing new and innovative ways to solve business problems.

The CI mindset needs to permeate all levels of leadership and management. Recruiting leaders who embody this philosophy is crucial for a growing and evolving organization. Leadership training is essential, not just for onboarding new hires, but also for ongoing education to ensure the CI mindset remains a top priority throughout the company. Senior leaders who participate in this leadership training further reinforce it’s importance by setting an example  


Culture is the element that sustains continuous improvement efforts and ensures their lasting impact. A supportive culture that values transparency, data-driven decision-making, and experimentation fosters an environment where associates feel empowered to take calculated risks. This encourages them to innovate and solve problems independently, without solely relying on leadership for solutions. 

Continuous improvement thrives when associates feel empowered to make changes. Kaizen events and problem-solving techniques empower them to take ownership and drive positive change. Front-line associates creating value at the point-of-impact (Gemba) often know the one best way for doing the work. Following a Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle creates a learning culture that continuously promotes improvement.  Recognizing and rewarding desired behaviors is essential for developing a culture that embraces change management initiatives.

So, which of the three elements is most important to a successful business system? It’s impossible to declare a single most important element. The three pillars – organization design, leadership, and culture – function synergistically. A well-designed organization structure provides the framework for action. Strong leadership ignites the passion and commitment to continuous improvement. A positive culture ensures these efforts are sustained over time. By focusing on all three pillars, companies can build a thriving business system that drives operational excellence, enhances customer satisfaction, and delivers long-term success.

If you’d like to improve your Business System, but you aren’t sure where to start, reach out to a team member today to discuss how we can support your work to deliver value.


Lean consulting, Lean manufacturing, Lean transformation

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