Build competitive advantage through a culture of continuous improvement

Article published in American City Business Journals on February 6, 2023.

Management fads come and go. Over the years, many initiatives have been proposed by consultants to deliver strong bottom-line growth and long-term sustainable competitive advantage. I have sat through countless hours of presentations listening to management gurus expound on why his or her initiative is the “next best thing.” 

The term “management fad” refers to a number of initiatives, some of which include management by objectives; matrix management; “if it’s not broke, fix it anyway;” total quality management; business process re-engineering; delayering; Six Sigma; ISO 9000; Baldrige Quality Award; Kaizen; 360 degree reviews; lean manufacturing and stack ranking of employees. Today, you hardly hear about most of these initiatives. Why is this the case?

Some initiatives lacked substance or never delivered the intended results. Others were bureaucratic and paperwork intensive. As with any management initiative, if your employees don’t believe in it or they feel that the benefit is not worth the time and effort for the results achieved, it will not be sustainable.

Some companies adopted a management fad only to leave it behind to embrace a new fad when it came along, diverting more time from employees to run the business. One wonders how many employees at those companies chose not to fully embrace this year’s initiative, waiting for their management to adopt the next new initiative. 

At my company, we adopted and stuck with the one initiative that generated long-term results and was sustainable over time. It was the philosophy of continuous quality improvement, or CQI. We built our culture around it. Why is CQI different from other management initiatives? Instinctively, most employees realize that continuous improvement is needed to grow the company and build a competitive advantage. To not continually improve means that you fall behind. No other initiative has this innate imperative.

Even though CQI is led by the CEO and other senior leaders, it is driven by the employees at every level within the company. The senior leadership of the firm is charged with creating an environment where employees develop a sense of ownership in the part of the business in which they work. This cultural change puts power and responsibility into the hands of employees to initiate improvement projects, without getting upper management’s approval. If an improvement idea is beyond their authority level, they are empowered to present the idea to the individual who has the authority to approve it.

Creation of a CQI culture requires training of all managers to be coaches and counselors to their employees, encouraging them to develop and implement their own improvement ideas. Training is also needed to help employees analyze data to determine the root cause of issues, so proper solutions can be identified.

By adopting CQI, we saved millions of dollars by implementing creative ideas generated by our employees across the company. Many of those ideas were developed and implemented by the hourly workforce within our manufacturing plants. The savings these projects generated helped us be more competitive, and provided funds to reinvest in and grow our business.

So, if you are looking for a sustainable initiative to build competitive advantage, look no further than the culture of continuous improvement. Companies that do not continually improve will fall behind. Those that do will win the competitive race in the long run.

Stan Silverman is founder of Silverman Leadership and author of “Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success.” He is also a speaker, advisor and widely read nationally syndicated columnist on leadership. He can be reached at

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