September 14, 2021

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People-centered Improvement – A 20-year Journey

It’s often said life is a journey. I also think that aspects of our lives, like education, parenting, spirituality, relationships, careers, and more, have their journeys. A journey suggests going from one place to another, which we often do over time in these areas. In many cases, these journeys are not linear, nor do we know the destination at the starting point.

While 2020 was a monumental year for many reasons worldwide and within the US, it was also a significant year as I celebrated the 20th year of my journey as a continuous improvement practitioner. As I look back, I recognize a few distinct stages to this journey – the application and execution of tools, seeing a bigger picture, and developing people.

Early Stage – Application and Execution of Tools

I began the journey in the summer of 2000 at GE Capital, where I participated in the Information Management Leadership Program (IMLP), an intensive two-year leadership development program. The program focused on developing entry-level professionals to serve as future leaders within GE’s Information Technology (IT) function by building programming, software development, project management, finance, quality, communication, presentation, and networking skills. As part of this program, all IMLP candidates were developed and certified as Six Sigma Black Belts. During this Black Belt experience, I realized I enjoyed process thinking and problem solving more than the IT realm.

Throughout my time in the program, I applied the Six Sigma skills I learned to process improvement projects and was also encouraged to use the rigor of the tools in other ways. For example, using Failure Modes and Effects Analysis (FMEA) to identify and mitigate against breakdowns in IT infrastructure (i.e., servers, network equipment, power sources, etc.), gathering and prioritizing user requirements for systems development or upgrades using Quality Function Deployment (QFD), and using a prioritization (solution selection) matrix to aid vendor selection. During this early stage of my continuous improvement journey, much of my focus was on applying tool usage.

After completing IMLP, I transitioned into a marketing role for an IT services business. In this role, I blended technology and Six Sigma methodologies to develop implementation strategies for customers. This challenged me to move beyond tool application traditionally and focus on the structure of the DMAIC problem-solving framework and how to blend that with technology implementation roadmaps. I learned the value of blending process thinking with technology execution; ideally, process design should come before the application of technology.

Next Stage – Seeing a Bigger Picture

The next phase in my journey shifted me from an execution role to advising and teaching others. I spent nine years in the consulting industry supporting organizations beginning or maturing in their continuous improvement journeys. I partnered with senior leaders in setting strategies and developing infrastructure to lead continuous improvement in their organizations, trained and certified practitioners to establish their continuous improvement skills, and facilitated improvement project efforts. From these experiences, I began seeing the “bigger picture” of how improvement work fits within an organization and is a mechanism to drive the strategy. I also learned how critical customer- and process-focused leadership behaviors and engagement are and the infrastructure elements required to enable improvement (i.e., aligning improvement to strategy, selecting opportunities for improvement, standard methodology, tools, and templates).

Current Stage – People at the Center

My role has continued to shift over the last seven years. I now spend more than half of my time coaching others in developing and growing their continuous improvement mindset and skills – many of whom are at the beginning of their continuous improvement journeys. As a coach to leaders, I partner with them to emphasize the delivery of value to customers as a priority, create an environment for employees to grow and thrive through humble inquiry, and encourage their people to have a passion for excellence. As a coach to practitioners, I partner with them to understand who their customers are and how they define value, see their work as a process, and adopt a problem-solving mindset through the application of continuous improvement methods and tools.

With this shift in my role to predominately coaching others, and as I continue to develop and learn in my evolution, I recognize that people are the heart and soul of improvement — more than tools, methodologies/frameworks, technology, or infrastructure, people fuel an organization. And in turn, it is those people that drive improvements to increase the value being delivered to customers, improve safety and engagement of employees, boost capacity, and ignite growth. It is much clearer to me why the Toyota Production System (TPS) puts ‘people continuously improving’ at the center of the house (based on the TPS house represented in Developing Lean Leaders at All Levels).

Like others, I was glad to put 2020 behind me. But amidst the adverse events, I am thankful for the opportunity to reflect on and share my journey. I am also grateful to have been a part of many others’ continuous improvement journeys. Twenty years feels like a long journey already, but I know it’s not over. Going forward, my goals are to remain open to growth and continue to support others in creating their paths.

The growth and development of people is the highest calling of leadership – Harvey S. Firestone.