How CIOs can help teams dedicate time to continuous improvement

It can be difficult to find time to make ongoing, incremental improvements within IT. Thales North America CIO Kevin Neifert shares how his organization made it a priority
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An unfortunate Catch-22 of the continuous improvement model is not having the time to create the time needed to pursue improvements in a consistent, sustainable way. This is what we were up against when I joined Thales last year. At that time, our IT organization was deeply focused on the tactical work needed to keep our systems and operations running. Our teams were eager to take on more strategic work, but time was not on our side. 

Our teams were eager to take on more strategic work, but time was not on our side. 

This became very apparent during one of our early leadership offsites, when three different groups came to the same conclusion during a brainstorming session: Continuous improvement was a major interest, but time was the main obstacle to implementing it in a meaningful way.

The continuous improvement model, sometimes known as Kaizen, is a practice that focuses on the ongoing improvement of products, services, or processes through incremental and breakthrough improvements. It is designed to give organizations a method for determining ways to streamline work and reduce waste. 

To most, the concept of “continuous improvement” may seem like a general directive – always look for ways to do better, learn lessons from your experience, make incremental change. For an IT organization focused on accelerating meaningful transformation that can deliver for the business, it means creating a formal structure around the idea. That’s a step many organizations overlook; they may tackle tasks in the name of continuous improvement, but they do it ad hoc, without a dedicated effort that includes planning and benchmarking.

[ What’s your calendar killer? Read: 7 time-wasting habits to kick in 2020 ]

Make time to make progress

Reflecting on the team’s interest in taking on continuous improvement, I thought to myself: “If I, as the leader of this IT organization, don’t set aside specific time for the team to continuously improve, then how will we?” At the time, our “battle rhythm” of meetings used to run the organization was focused on tactical efforts. While that was important, it wasn’t going to advance our efforts to become more quick and efficient, adding value to the organization. 

To demonstrate that continuous improvement would be a new priority for our organization, I formally set aside dedicated time that the team would use to take it on. Now, my leadership team and their direct reports take turns participating in continuous improvement working sessions every Friday, rotating who participates – my leadership team one week, and the extended team the following week. It doesn’t matter if employees are local or remote, everyone participates. 

During these sessions, we take on a set of continuous improvement initiatives, sometimes splitting into small working groups. Participating group members are responsible for cascading session outcomes throughout the organization, which helps instill the continuous improvement mindset more broadly. 

Consider a book club

One of the interesting elements of these working sessions has been our book club. During the weeks when the leadership team meets, we devote 30 minutes to discuss a book relevant to our industry. For instance, right now, we’re reading, “The Real Business of IT: How CIOs Create and Communicate Value by Richard Hunter and George Westerman. I’m recommending it here too, because it has been my CIO bible for the last decade or so and it has inspired some great ideas over the years. 

The conversations sparked as a result of the book club have been thrilling, piquing new areas of interest and points of views. We don’t let anyone get away with not doing the reading or opting out of the discussion and this helps make sure that even the non-expressive team members participate – and this helps facilitate true collaboration toward a common goal. 

Success requires commitment 

As CIOs, we have the opportunity to position our organizations to be more competitive. These ongoing continuous improvement work sessions are helping us free up more time, money, and talent that we can focus on strategic initiatives. They also infuse new energy and opportunities into our IT organization. 

Making the commitment to spend time on this effort every week is what’s making our initiative so successful. By operationalizing the effort, we’ve put our IT organization on a sustainable path to progress. Now we even have time on our side. 

[ Want to increase the sense of urgency in your organization? Get going with our Fast Start Guide to Creating a Sense of Urgency. ]

Kevin Neifert is chief information officer for Thales North America. Previously he was the CIO of Raytheon, where he spent 14 years in a variety of information technology, engineering and program management roles.