Will Quinn reflects on a career that has seen organizations embrace continuous improvement and those that haven’t. The former tend to outperform the latter, and here’s what it looks like.

Continuous improvement concept. Solving problems, improving organizational processes. Creating continuous improvement mindset. Project and process management, lean improvement technique, kaizen.

In my career, I have worked for organizations that embraced continuous improvement and those that did not. The most successful ones already had an employee-centric company culture that allowed their people to feel safe enough to challenge the status quo and introduce new ideas. In today’s fast-paced and competitive business landscape, a culture of continuous improvement must be embraced. Companies that actively promote a culture of learning, innovation, and adaptability tend to outperform their counterparts.

A continuous improvement culture is crucial for the distribution industry to stay competitive, efficient and meet ever-changing customer demands. Cultivating a culture of continuous improvement can help facilitate the following:

  • Improve efficiency:  Finding ways to streamline processes, reduce waste, optimize workflows, and leverage technology results in faster throughput, lower costs, and the ability to scale operations.
  • Enhance quality:  Continuous improvement focuses on reducing defects and errors through better systems and training. This improves order accuracy, on-time delivery, and customer satisfaction.
  • Drive innovation: New ideas and innovations emerge by empowering all employees to identify improvement opportunities. Companies can rapidly pilot and implement new technologies, processes, and business models to gain an edge.
  • Adapt to change: Customer expectations, demand patterns, and technologies constantly shift in distribution. A culture of continuous improvement positions companies to rapidly adapt through ongoing training, feedback loops, and iterative testing of new approaches.
  • Retain talent: Employees want to work at companies where their ideas matter and they can develop new skills. The engagement around continuous improvement creates a collaborative and motivational culture.
  • Boost competitiveness: Distribution is an increasingly complex and competitive space. Companies that embed continuous improvement into their culture will outperform their peers in cost, quality, flexibility and innovation.

 In addition, here are a handful of key attributes companies, regardless of industry or focus, can adopt to create a culture of continuous improvement.

  • Leadership’s commitment to continuous improvement: Establishing a culture of continuous improvement starts at the top. While all innovation will not come from senior leaders, they must demonstrate commitment to the process by creating a safe environment to challenge conventional wisdom, setting clear expectations, and allocating necessary resources to innovation projects. When leaders prioritize and incentivize improvement initiatives, employees recognize the importance of continuous improvement, which helps foster a growth and development mindset throughout the organization.
  • Encouraging open communication and collaboration: Open and effective communication fosters innovation and growth. Encourage employees to voice their ideas, concerns, and suggestions without fear of judgment or dismissal. While every suggestion may not be adopted, a process of soliciting and reviewing them must. Establishing channels for feedback and collaboration, such as suggestion boxes, regular team meetings, and innovation workshops, promotes a sense of ownership and involvement. By embracing diverse perspectives and fostering cross-functional collaboration, organizations can tap into the collective intelligence of their workforce and drive meaningful change.
  • Embracing a learning culture: Organizations must foster a learning mindset among employees. Encourage ongoing professional development through training programs, workshops, conferences, and mentorship opportunities. By investing in employees’ growth, organizations empower individuals to acquire new skills, stay abreast of emerging trends, and contribute to the organization’s overall improvement efforts. Learning should be seen as a continuous journey rather than a one-time event, inspiring employees to seek personal and professional growth opportunities. These employer-funded opportunities are mutually beneficial.
  • Focus on process improvement: Continuous improvement is not just about changing products or services. It is also about improving the underlying processes that support them. This means identifying and eliminating waste, reducing errors, and improving efficiency. Regularly track and communicate progress against these goals, leveraging key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure success and identify areas for improvement.
  • Data-driven decision-making: Continuous improvement is based on data, so companies must collect and analyze data to identify areas for improvement. This data can help track progress, identify trends, and inform decisions. Moving your enterprise resource planning (ERP) software and other systems to the cloud is the first step in deploying new tools like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). Combining all your data from your disparate system into a single data lake helps you realize this potential.

During a recent conversation with Jon Cox, chief supply chain officer at Envoy Solutions, I asked, “Why is it important for an organization to have a culture of continuous improvement, and what does that look like to you?” Jon responded, “Continuous improvement is vital to business sustainability. Variables are constantly changing around us, or as we like to remind ourselves, shifts happen. As a wholesale distributor, there are always opportunities to improve, which can include looking upstream to partner with the vendor community, collaborating with customers downstream, or investing in technology to streamline processes. At Envoy Solutions, our continuous improvement mindset leads to creative solutions that unlock value for our stakeholders. I believe that when you empower your workforce and engage them in the efforts to make improvements; efficiency, productivity and innovation accelerates.”

The Final Word

Creating a culture of continuous improvement is a journey that requires commitment, collaboration, and a shared vision. It means maintaining a healthy level of dissatisfaction with good results and always striving to improve. Whether you are the leader or an employee, you should ask yourself how to help your organization stay ahead of the competition. Organizations can foster innovation, drive sustainable growth, and enhance operational efficiency by implementing continuous improvement strategies. Employees will be empowered to grow professionally, contribute their best ideas, and adapt to changing circumstances. As a result, organizations will be positioned as leaders in their industries and be able to navigate the complexities of today’s business landscape.

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Will Quinn

Will Quinn

Will Quinn is the Director of Industry Solution & Strategy for Infor Distribution. With more than 25 years of Supply Chain and Logistics experience, Will brings a wealth of industry knowledge and expertise to the team, enabling our sales organization to understand better the challenges distributors face on a day-to-day basis. He works closely with distribution industry associations and buying groups and is a frequent speaker at industry events. Before his role at Infor, Will ran distribution centers for Grainger, Coca-Cola, MSC Industrial Supply, WEG Electric, and Cintas. He began his career in logistics by serving 12 years in the United States Marine Corps. He also has a Master of Science in Supply Chain Management from Elmhurst University.

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