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Procedia CIRP 41 (2016) 1119 – 1124


Barriers to continuous improvement: perceptions of top managers, middle

managers and workers
Eirin Lodgaarda,*, Jonas A. Ingvaldsena , Silje Aschehouga, Inger Gammea,
SINTEF Raufoss Manufacturing, Box 163, N-2831 Raufoss, Norway.

* Corresponding author. Tel.: +47-9954-4358; Fax: + 47-6115-3625. E-mail address: eirin.lodgaard@sintef.no


Continuous improvement [CI], as culture, tools and methods, is critical to manufacturing companies’ competitive position. Research has
documented that as many as two out of three CI programs fail, in the sense of not meeting goals and expectations. While poorly designed CI
systems and misguided use of tools and methods may explain some failed CI initiatives, surveys and expert polls indicate that the main barriers
to CI success are organizational and managerial. This paper reports on a case study of barriers to CI. The case company, a medium-sized
manufacturer of maritime systems, has achieved only partial success with CI, despite repeated efforts. Unsurprisingly, both technical and
organizational barriers are important, but the relative importance attributed to the different barriers is strikingly dissimilar across hierarchical
levels in the organization. While top managers attribute the limited success to shortcomings of information systems and improvement methods,
workers primarily point to limited support and commitment from management, in addition to other organizational factors such as lack of
involvement, motivation and teamwork. Middle managers acknowledge both groups of barriers, but tend to agree more with the workers’ view.
If these findings are generalizable beyond the single case-company, there are important implications for both research and practice. Research
should appreciate the complex attribution of barriers, by complementing conventional surveys with in-depth qualitative analysis. Practically,
unless the opinions of different occupation groups at different hierarchical levels are listened to, efforts to overcome the barriers may be
misguided. In addition, top managers should learn to take the roles of CI champions, who not only allocate resources to CI, but also actively
encourage, follow-up and reward the appropriate use of CI tools and methods.
© 2015
© 2015 The
The Authors.
Authors. Published
Published by
by Elsevier
Elsevier B.V.
B.V. This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND license
Peer-review under responsibility of the Scientific Committee of 48th CIRP Conference on MANUFACTURING SYSTEMS - CIRP CMS
Peer-review under responsibility of the scientific committee of 48th CIRP Conference on MANUFACTURING SYSTEMS - CIRP CMS 2015
Keywords: Continuous improvement; production management; organizational behavour

1. Introduction of an organization [2]. Bhuiyan and Baghel further describe

CI as something that occurs through incremental
Worldwide, manufacturing companies continuously strive improvements or through radical improvements based on a
to sustain their competitive advantages. Common strategies new technology or innovative ideas. Sometimes, large
for competiveness include production systems focusing on improvements are the result of many incremental
lean and quality. improvements over time. CI may also be regarded as a
The Toyota Production System (TPS) is by many number of approaches, tools and techniques for finding and
considered to be the world benchmark in production eliminating waste and improving quality [2]. Today, the best-
improvement programs [1]. In addition, many companies known approaches for CI are: Total quality management
experience customer demands to comply with the ISO (TQM), six sigma, lean, balanced scorecard, and hybrid
organization’s quality standards (e.g. ISO 9001, ISO TS methodologies such as lean six sigma [2, 3].
16849). Common to TPS and quality standards is a systematic Even though CI has been known for decades, and many
approach to problem solving throughout the organization, books have been written about its practical implementation,
known as continuous improvement (CI). companies often find their CI programs in a fledgling state
CI may be defined as a culture of sustained improvements, [4]. The failure rate is high [5]; as many as two out of three CI
targeting the elimination of waste in all systems and processes initiatives fail to deliver the desired results [6]. Companies

2212-8271 © 2015 The Authors. Published by Elsevier B.V. This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND license
Peer-review under responsibility of the scientific committee of 48th CIRP Conference on MANUFACTURING SYSTEMS - CIRP CMS 2015
1120 Eirin Lodgaard et al. / Procedia CIRP 41 (2016) 1119 – 1124

often achieve significant improvements in the short run, but 3. Factors influencing continuous improvement
CI ultimately falls apart. Clearly, there is a need to understand
why the failure rate is high, and what companies can do to 3.1. Management
make their CI initiatives more successful and sustainable.
Against this background, this paper empirically In the literature, management commitment and
investigates which barriers to CI top managers, middle involvement are highlighted as important success factors
managers and workers consider important. Do the different when implementing and performing CI [4, 15]. Jakobsen and
groups list the same barriers? Do the different groups put Poppendieck document the importance of management
equal emphasis on the different barriers? If not, how can we commitment through a study in which significant and
explain the differences in perception? Since several studies of sustainable improvement was achieved due to the role of the
CI implementation stress the importance of integrating a management team [16]. Managers mentored the improvement
technical infrastructure with the soft, behavioral aspects [7, 8], teams to ensure completeness of the improvement program,
we explore both technical and organizational factors and supported the improvement activities. Bhuiyan and
influencing CI. Baghel mention another dimension of management’s role [2]:
The article has the following structure: First, the theoretical There is no clear way of prioritizing major improvement
background for CI is outlined and the literature on barriers to programs by management. Another important element is that
CI is reviewed. Second, we present a case study of a company management needs to pay close attention to follow-up
that specializes in manufacturing of high-end, complex mechanisms to ensure sustainability and the ability to capture
thrusters. Over the last years, their CI results have been and create knowledge [12].
mixed, and we report their perception of barriers. Third and
finally, conclusions and implications for researchers and 3.2. Organizing for continuous improvement
practitioners are presented.
The application of CI within the entire organization
2. Nature of continuous improvement presents a variety of challenges. Garcia-Sabater and Marin-
Garcia report that in many cases, there is a lack of strategic
Both American and Japanese manufacturing have played a orientation with respect to CI [4]. This finding may indicate
significant role in shaping the evolution of CI [9]. Nowadays, that the organization has not sufficiently reflected on how to
CI is a core principle regardless of which kind of management organize for integration of CI at all levels.
system the organization has chosen [9]. There are many The experience of disappointment and failure with CI
definitions of CI. Two of them are: reported by many organizations derives mainly from a lack of
“A continuous stream of high-involvement, incremental understanding of the behavioral dimension [5]. Too much
changes in products and processes for enhanced business focus on CI tools and methods, to the neglect of human
performance”[3], and factors and how CI behavioral patterns emerge in the
“A company-wide process of focused and continuous workplace, is also reported as a pitfall in a study by
incremental innovation [10]. Ljungström and Klefsjö [3]. Jakobsen and Poppendieck also
These definitions emphasize one common aspect: Through highlight the importance of obtaining commitment from
employee involvement in the entire organization, CI aims to employees, in addition to commitment from management
improve the organization's processes in order to meet [16]. A study by Yan and Makinde point out that an effective
customer requirements. communication channel between management and employees
CI can occur through incremental improvement and working with the CI programs, is important to ensure
through radical change [2]. Incremental improvement refers to sustainability [17].
small and gradual improvement, while radical change refers to The composition and structure of the improvement team
improvement based on innovative ideas or new technology are crucial to success, and one must be knowledgeable about
that may require investments. An extended period with both the improvement approach and the issues to be improved
incremental improvements can result in a major improvement. [12]. Normally a CI team is established to solve a specific
Consequently, CI is a process of change in which superior issue, and the team includes personnel who have the
performance is attained [11]. necessary competence and mandate to achieve the desired
Most organizations are not consistently addressing day-to- improvement. People working with improving specific issues
day problems, but instead have developed sophisticated should be the same people who normally work on those issues
“firefighting" skills [12]. This shows another important factor [16]. This view is supported by Jarvinen et al. who point out
in successful applications: that the CI process is embedded in the importance of getting the experts together, and
the organizational culture [13], so that problem-solving is a consequently ensuring acceptance through participation [18].
natural road to improvement [14]. Through involvement, employees gain a sense of belonging
Different events may trigger CI activities. The first type of and satisfaction, and they are allowed to put their creativity,
initiative for CI occurs when there is a deviation from a knowledge and skills to good use. Intrinsic motivation of
desired state, giving rise to a statement of a well-defined individual team members is another success factor [19]. The
problem to be solved. For example, workers may revise a use of cross-functional teams with close collaboration and
standard practice if it produces unexpected or anomalous good communication between teams is an enabler for
results. The second type of initiative for CI occurs when there successful implementation of CI [4].
is no deviation, but one still sees the opportunity for Soares et al. have found that perhaps the greatest challenge
improvement through creative thinking. in the accomplishment of improvement initiatives is to ensure
Eirin Lodgaard et al. / Procedia CIRP 41 (2016) 1119 – 1124 1121

that the improvement persists over time [19]. In order to be issue to solve in addition to developing skilled improvement-
sustainable, changes should be propagated throughout the solvers. A3 helps document progress, what is learned inside
organization to all employees involved, both inside and each of the improvement programs in addition to transfer of
outside the CI team [20]. Otherwise, only a few people will knowledge between the different improvement programs.
know about it. The improvement should be codified as a new
standard and spread throughout the organization as “best 4. Research design
practice” [14].
This study is part of a national research project concerning
3.3. Continuous improvement method work organization and operations in the Norwegian
manufacturing industry. The reported findings are the results
CI is achieved through application of a number of methods of a two-year in-depth single case study. As the research team
and techniques [2]. If the goals are to reduce waste, streamline has worked closely with the case company for two years, we
the flow of the manufacturing process and improve product have gained thorough understanding of their operational
quality, a systematic approach is preferable to ad-hoc problem challenges and opportunities.
solving. A systematic approach helps the improvement team The case company is a manufacturing company in Norway
stay focused on completion of the improvement initiative by with engineering to order based production. The company
carrying out pre-defined steps until goal satisfaction prevails experiences global market pressure to deliver high quality and
[21]. reliable products. It employs approximately 300 employees,
It is important for companies to select proper CI methods and has an annual turnover of approximately 150 million
according to their needs, and demand that CI is carried out US$.
throughout the organization [13]. All CI methods have The research design is qualitative case study [27, 28]. A
strengths and weakness, which should inform management’s protocol describing research questions and data collection
choices. Then, the chosen methods should be applied methods was developed and discussed within the research
correctly to the appropriate processes in the organization and team. Several sources of evidence were collected during the
be supported by planning, training and monitoring of the CI
case study to address construct validity [28]. This includes
semi-structured interviews, unstructured interviews, field
Accomplishment of improvement by applying a defined
visits, observations, access to databases, and document
method requires both knowledge about the method and the
reviews. In addition, we arranged workshops with the
skills to perform the method in the correct way. A study by
company, where CI and the usability of its supporting
Kitching found that learning by interacting was considered
technical system were discussed. Thirteen formal interviews
more important than externally provided training [22]. These
were conducted at the case company's location over a two-
findings support the claim that knowledge about the method is
year period. This allowed for reflections in between the
enhanced by prior accomplishment of improvements.
interviews and for the development of more specific
Nevertheless, basic knowledge about the methods must first
be established [23].
The collected data was analyzed in order to identify
Another important element is that management needs
perceived barriers that hinder CI performance in the
knowledge about the chosen method and implementation of
CI to be able to understand what CI is all about [24]. Sobek organization. Transcribed interviews and company
and Smalley report that many managers who have chosen the documentation were coded and visualized in data displays to
PDCA cycle as a CI method, are not familiar with the PDCA find patterns and recurring themes [29]. Findings were also
or do not really understand it [12]. discussed with company managers, adding respondent
3.4. Capturing and sharing of knowledge The results in this article should be regarded as indicative,
as they are based on a single case study. Although a single
In a cyclic process of implementing changes, studying the case only gives limited generalizability, it is possible to obtain
results and reflecting on the lessons learned, new knowledge an extensive comprehension of the phenomena studied. Using
is derived. Both successes and failures may lead to new a single case can, according to Yin [30], “offer a significant
knowledge [25]. Reflective communication enhances contribution to knowledge and theory building.”
learning, ultimately resulting in higher performance.
Reflective communication is a process whereby the team 5. Results and discussion
members transfer and combine insights to reach a common
understanding of what the experience or information means The case company is organized in functional departments,
[26]. Throughout the process, participants are encouraged to with multiple hierarchical levels (3-6 dependent on
ask questions, challenge assumptions and seek different department function).
perspectives. All employees are expected to report and contribute to
Sharing of knowledge created in the CI process is often solving all kinds of operational problems including deviations
challenging, due to the lack of support systems. Knowledge in their daily work. To a large extent, such problem solving is
created in the CI processes may be documented as explicit carried out in all departments every day. Still, the company
knowledge, by text and visualization, on a single sheet of experiences that the same types of deviations and quality
paper with A3 format [12]. The philosophy behind this issues repeat themselves, often multiple times. This indicates
approach is to develop deep learning about the improvement that the company has challenges when it comes to how to
1122 Eirin Lodgaard et al. / Procedia CIRP 41 (2016) 1119 – 1124

report, handle, and learn from deviances and improvement documenting and sharing information. Many managers
initiatives. thought that investments in new technology would solve their
In order to identify the perceived barriers to CI at different information-sharing challenges. However, as shown by
organizational levels, top managers, middle manager and previous studies, installing new systems for information
workers were interviewed. Results are summarized in Table 1. sharing is seldom the only solution – it is equally important to
Barriers are categorized according to the literature review in ensure that there is willingness among the people to share
section 3. An ‘x’ indicates that the group of informants information [33]. A surprising finding is that top managers
(horizontal axis) focused on this barrier (vertical axis) as one apparently do not acknowledge the importance of their own
of the main barriers with regard to achieving success with CI. support and commitment to the CI program. Exiting research
shows that the main driving force to succeed with CI is
Table 1. Perceived barriers to CI. management commitment and active leadership [4, 15, 16].
Category Perceptions of Top Middle Workers Middle managers pointed to most types of barriers
barriers managers managers explored in the literature. Curiously, they were concerned
Management Limited management x x about lack of top management commitment, but rarely
commitment reflected on their own roles as managers of CI. One of the
Limited support from x x middle managers explained how he thought CI
management implementations should proceed: "It should start from the top
CI not a daily focus x x management and be implemented further down in the
organization structure, or start with the whole organization at
Organizing Roles/responsibilities x x
the same time. If the process starts at the bottom, and nothing
for CI not defined
happens, the process will stop halfway, and nothing more will
Lack of involvement x x happen. Hence, it will be difficult to start all over again."
Lack of teamwork x x Both middle managers and workers reported that
Lack of motivation x x involvement, teamwork and motivation were lacking. Top
CI method Not according to best x
managers, however, did not have this as a key focus area.
practice Bessant et al. highlight the behavioral dimension, more than
specific tools and methods for achieving CI [5]. Teamwork
Not user-friendly x x
system [technical] and collaboration foster skill development across functional
boarders, and contribute to a common understanding of
Not covering all x
relevant CI initiatives
challenges. One of the top managers mentioned that he
involved both middle managers and workers in problem
Not adding sufficient x x
solving. Nevertheless, there was a shared opinion among
middle managers and workers that there was a lack of
Knowledge Lack of knowledge x x x employee involvement in the CI processes. Involvement is
about CI method
identified in the literature as a key component for integration
Lack of capturing x x x of CI at all levels [4]. Insufficient collaboration and different
and sharing of expectations to the CI processes at different hierarchical
levels may be reasons why informants focused on different
barriers. And this recognition reveals that increased
Table 1 shows that perceptions of barriers for achieving CI collaboration with employees in all levels and across of the
are strikingly dissimilar across hierarchical levels in the organization is with potential of improvement. Their opinion
organization. While top managers primarily attribute the of lack of involvement, teamwork and motivation could be
limited success to shortcomings of improvement methods and explained by following; normally employees want to feel
supporting technical systems, workers primarily point to appreciated by involvement and the possibility to contribute
limited support and commitment from management, in with their knowledge and experience.
addition to other organizational factors such as lack of The following quotation from an operator is illustrative of
involvement, motivation and teamwork. Middle managers the workers’ perception of barriers: "I tried to contribute on
acknowledge both groups of barriers, but a closer inspection solving some improvement issues, but experienced that it did
of the table reveals that they agree more with the worker. In not work very well since there were little response from the
general, the findings indicate that employees at different management. Hence, the improvement process came to an
hierarchical levels perceive different barriers when embarking end." If the CI initiatives are managed in this way, the
on CI. Bhasin makes similar observations in relation to the motivation of the workers will be poor and CI will fall apart
implementation of lean in the U.K.; among other things, after a short time [5]. Managers did not expect operators to
workers and managers disagree on whether management’s document the improvement activities in the existing technical
attitude was appropriate for lean to prosper [31]. Often, system or be well trained in their chosen CI method. This
people from different functions and hierarchical levels have could be a reason why the workers were not focused on
different backgrounds, and hence different world views [32]. barriers related to CI method and the technical system. It
More specifically, interviews with top managers at the case should be noted that only the managers had been trained in CI
company revealed that a holistic view on the determinants of method and how to use the supporting technical system.
CI success was lacking. Their main focus was on how to Despite important differences between the hierarchical
achieve CI by choosing best practice methods and levels, our informants also agreed on some of the barriers.
implementing a user-friendly technical system for Insufficiently knowledge about CI methods and lack of
Eirin Lodgaard et al. / Procedia CIRP 41 (2016) 1119 – 1124 1123

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