A continual improvement maturity model♠
Over the past year, I have worked with several organizations wishing to start the continual improvement of their services and how they manage them. Continual improvement can be a profound cultural change for an organization. Many teams find it difficult to appropriate and internalize the principles of continual improvement. And so, I found it useful to model the developing maturity of an organization’s continual improvement capabilities. I wish to share with you this model.
This continual improvement maturity model is not intended to be a one-size-fits-all model. While it was developed based on the observed changes in various teams in very different types of organizations, I have direct knowledge of only a tiny fraction of the organizations trying to use continual improvement. Therefore, I hope that interested readers will share their own views and experiences. I have not found any other published maturity model for continual improvement, even though such models are in use in some organizations. I hope they will collaborate in the development and the evolution of this maturity model.
Please note that a maturity model is not intended to document everything that could or should be done to improve continually. There are many factors that might influence continual improvement that are not a question of maturity. Two simple examples would be the organization’s structure and the amount of resources being allocated to continual improvement. An organization is not more mature just because it spends more money on the activity, just as it is not necessarily less mature just because it has a command and control approach to getting work done.
Yet another maturity model?
Some of the generic process or organizational maturity models don’t really help to develop an organization’s ability to improve itself continually. Even if you consider continual improvement to be a process (and I do not – see below), calling it undefined, or measured, or adaptive is of little use figuring out what to do next. I focus instead on a set of axes for increasing maturity, based on experiences in a variety of organizations. These axes are largely, but not entirely, independent of each other. That means that an organization may have different maturity levels along each axis, and each organization may find its own path for improving its capabilities.
Along each axis, I define six levels of maturity, each level specifically related to the issues of implementing a continual improvement approach. There is nothing magic about the number six. In fact, it does not fit very well on certain axes, where three or four might be a better number. But there is something familiar about that number, as used in maturity models. Too, it facilitates the creation of diagrams to compare and contrast maturity statuses. In time, it may prove more useful to reduce the number of levels in each axis.
The scales on the axes are intended to be ordinal, where zero is the lowest maturity and five the highest. But the intervals themselves mean nothing. An organization rated at four on a certain axis is not twice as mature as another organization with a rating of two.
The measurements of maturity along each axis are intended to be lead indicators for the value that may be obtained from continual improvement. Since the model itself has not yet been applied to a large sample of the overall population, it is too early to determine if, and how, those indicators may be related algorithmically to obtained value. That is a subject for future research.
The different levels on each axis are defined such that an organization will normally pass from one level to the next, without skipping levels. Attempts to skip maturity levels are not likely to bear fruit.
Finally, the levels are intended to reflect what an organization has already achieved, rather than what that organization is currently attempting to achieve. The temptation to rate oneself at a higher level, merely because you are working on developing that capability, should be resisted.
In the following sections, I describe the six axes of maturity for continual improvement. For each axis, I provide a name, a description of the capability, a suggested way to measure the capability and a description of the signs that each level has been achieved.
To what extent does the group understand the nature of continual improvement, why it is desirable and what are its benefits? Is this understanding made visible in the discussions and decisions made by the group or does it remain largely theoretical.
Continual improvement, as an approach, may be contrasted with other approaches to change and improvement in an organization. The most common of these other approaches is change via projects having fixed objectives, resources and duration. Understanding, then, is often manifested as an understanding of the difference between continual improvement and projects.
|0||The group has no awareness of continual improvement or its benefits, as a distinct approach|
|1-2||Certain group members understand continual improvement, but they do not yet dominate the understanding of the group as a whole|
|3-4||The group as a whole is aware of continual improvement as an approach and is able to cite its benefits|
|5||Continual improvement has been fully integrated into the vision and mission of the group|
To what extent does the group intend to improve continually, independently of its capacity to do so. Intent is a measure of commitment, engagement and motivation.
|0||Continual improvement is not on the agenda of the group. No one talks about it or shows any interest in the concept|
|1-2||The group members have started to gain consciousness of and commitment to continual improvement, but view it as something they do in addition to their “normal” work, to be performed if time is available|
|3||Continual improvement is integrated into the mission of the group and its members largely agree that a continual improvement is desirable and steps are taken to ensure sufficient time to perform improvement activities|
|4||Continual improvement has a high priority among the group members and the actions undertaken by the group|
|5||The members of the group have fully integrated continual improvement and consider it as part of their normal work|
Method and Tools
To what extent does the group have a method and related tools to make continual improvements. This axis does not measure whether or not such a method exists, but rather the degree to which the method is being used. If the Understanding axis concerns the “What” of continual improvement, the Method and Tools axis concerns the “How”. What is the maturity of how the group is improving.
|0||The group has no method, approach or tools to realize continual improvement|
|1-2||The group experiments with various methods and tools to support continual improvement, often with methods in conflict or with redundant tools|
|3||The group has standardized on one or more methods and supporting tools and has uses them regularly|
|4||The group can effectively apply its method and use its tools not only internally, but also in relation to the work of other groups|
|5||The group has shown the ability to tune and adapt its methods and tools as required by changing circumstances|
Cadence and momentum
How consistent is the cadence of improvement implementation? This axis links directly to the issues of group dynamics and how to maintain momentum in the work of a group. This, in turn, is related to the issue of leadership within a group. I consider the issue of leadership to be generic to any group and not specific to the question of continual improvement. But, because it is one of the main issues facing any group, I will add at the end of this article a small annex talking about how leadership and continual improvement may be related.
There are two fundamental metrics of this axis:
the variance between actual improvement delivery cadence and the mean delivery cadence, or takt time, over a given period
For example, if 12 improvements are delivered in 360 days, then the mean delivery cadence would be 1 improvement per each 30 days. But the actual cadence might be, for example, 2 improvements in 90 days, followed by 1 improvement in 20 days, then 1 improvement in 45 days, etc. It may be difficult to maintain interest and momentum if the variance is high.
the acceleration of the cadence of improvement implementation
As a group matures, it should be able to deliver more and more improvements, at a faster and faster cadence. A running average takt time, measured over a useful period (for example, six months) will have a slope of 0 if there is no acceleration, a negative slope if the rate accelerates, and a positive slope if the group is dysfunctional.
|0||Improvements, to the extent that they occur at all, occur in a completely unpredictable, seemingly random way. In short, they are few and far between. There is no sense of urgency to make improvements|
|1-2||The group shows periods of a sustained cadence of improvement, but lapses into periods of inactivity from time to time|
|3||The group is able to apply its adopted methods and tools to deliver a steady flow of improvements|
|4||The group is not only consistent in its ability to deliver improvements, but it demonstrates the ability to accelerate the rate at which it delivers improvements|
|5||Not only does the group accelerate the cadence of its improvements, it shows itself capable of making breakthroughs in barriers to improvement. These barriers are the cost-effectiveness barriers beyond which it is undesirable to go, unless breakthrough innovations are made|
How efficient and effective is the group in implementing improvements. This axis is largely a measure of the ratio of the effort required to implement improvements to the effort dedicated to planning, coordinating and controlling its own activities. The effort required to implement improvements corresponds to what Lean calls value-adding activities, or what Kanban calls transaction costs. I refer to the other types of effort as “coordination effort” or even “coordination cost”.
The fundamental metric of this axis is the ratio of coordination effort to improvement implementation effort.
|0||The effort of the group is completely disproportionate to the few results it demonstrates. The effort of the group is largely devoted to planning, coordination and control activities, rather than implementing improvements. The group is frequently blocked in its activities|
|1||The effort of the group devoted to planning, coordination and control is still very high, but the number of blockages is reduced and some simple improvements start to be delivered|
|2||The group continues to lower the ratio of coordination activities to implementation activities, especially for quick win type improvements of limited scope and complexity|
|3||The group is able to identify and implement improvements over a range of complexity with few false starts and few activities that fail to deliver the expected improvements|
|4-5||The group is able to implement improvements of varying scope and complexity, with only a very small fraction of its effort being devoted to planning, coordination and control. This level is typically the result of having fully appropriated the adopted methods|
To what degree is the group able to manage improvements for value. This axis is distinct from the actual value obtained from any improvements. All the axes of maturity should be taken together as lead indicators of that economic value, which should be measured independently of and as corrective to the efforts to improve the continual improvement capabilities.
The fundamental metric of this axis is the degree to which a group consistently succeeds in implementing improvements that have been prioritized on the basis of their value to customers.
|0||The value of the improvements is not taken into account at any phase of identifying, prioritizing, designing or implementing improvements|
|1||The value of improvements is taken into consideration on an ad hoc basis|
|2||The group has a method using an ordinal scale for estimating the value of the improvements it proposes (for example, High/Medium/Low) and uses that method to prioritize the proposals|
|3||The group uses numerical methods to assess value in economic terms, in addition to the capabilities of level 2|
|4||A feedback mechanism enables the group to assess and improve the accuracy and pertinence of its value assessments, in addition to the capabilities of level 3|
|5||The group demonstrates its ability to consistently predict the value of its improvements within a small range and with a high degree of probability|
Reporting on maturity levels
Once the maturity of an organizational unit is assessed, it is useful to share that information. A radar chart is perhaps the most useful graphical way of displaying the results of an assessment, An example is shown in fig. 1.
It is also useful to show the evolution of maturity levels for an organizational entity over time. A radar chart can be very difficult to read for such purposes. A stacked area chart might be somewhat easier to interpret at a glance, as shown in Fig. 2.
If I ask this question, it is not to get lost in a pedantic discussion about what we mean be processes. My purpose, instead, is to underline my belief that the most effective form of continual improvement is, by far, the improvement that has become embedded in the daily working practices of everyone in an organization. I gave an illustration of how this could work in my presentation Daily Improvement with Kanban. This is also a fundamental assumption of kaizen, as a component of the Toyota Production System. But when we start to treat improvement as a separate and distinct process, with its own process owner, its own managers and its own tools, then continuous improvement tends to be considered as something you do in addition to your own work, rather than being a fully integrated part of that work. In my experience, such an approach will have unnecessary difficulties in getting of the ground, will never really fly and will tend to require high levels of overhead just to keep it going.
Leadership and Continual Improvement§
As I indicated above, I believe that the role of leadership in a group is a generic issue, not one specific to continual improvement. However, the internal organization of a group is often one of the major blockages to increasing the maturity of continual improvement. Therefore, I propose here a set of leadership maturity levels.
|0||There is no leadership in the group|
|1||A central leader emerges who champions the effort of the group, but leadership might be contested|
|2||The central leadership is consolidated, perhaps after some false starts|
|3||The leadership of the group becomes increasingly distributed, with more and more group members playing leadership roles|
|4||The need for leadership, as a specific type of activity in the group, becomes less and less important, as all group members become more confirmed in their dedication and motivation|
|5||The usefulness of leadership has withered away, as all group members are able to agilely support the mission of the group without the need for leadership from another|
You will see from table above that I do not consider leadership to be a sine qua non for the success of a continual improvement initiative. It is, however, a very important factor in the early development of any group that, in turn, contributes to the increasing maturity of that group and success in fulfilling its mission. In short, one of the hallmarks of a very mature group is the lack of strong, centralized leadership. That being said, most groups are not very mature, so leadership is indeed a major issue for them.ƒ
I should add here that as the mission and vision of a group changes, its need for leadership may also change. Therefore, increasing leadership is less of a slope to climb and more of a series of cycles or spirals.
ℑ ℑ ℑ
If you find this model useful, please let me know. All suggestions for improvement, if based on real experience and not just theory, are welcome.
♠I have now added another dimension to those described in this article. Please see Collaboration Maturity Levels, too.
§Many thanks to Jan Vromant for raising the issue of leadership in this context.
ƒThe reader will readily make the connection between the maturity levels proposed here and Bruce Tuckman’s Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing model for group development.