Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in December 2018 and has been revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

“When we focus on becoming our best and recognize that our best tomorrow can be better than our best today, continuous improvement is fun.” — Chris Ihrig, CEO of FiredUp! Culture

In 2008, Michael Phelps won eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics. He set world records and blew away the competition. In the five years that came before, he did not take a single day off — not for his birthday, not for Christmas, not for anything.

And after he won? He didn’t stop. He rewatched his races and started thinking about how he, by far the world’s greatest swimmer, could improve. 

When businesses aren’t improving, they become stagnant, which is a major problem in today’s world where everything seems to move faster by the day. There is no time to rest on our laurels and enjoy the success we achieved yesterday. Today is a new day with new challenges. But competing to get to number one or to stay at the top can be stressful if you treat it as a competition with others. 

But when you focus inward on doing your personal best, things change.

Performing Your Best, Not Just Better Than Others

There is another way to look at continuous improvement that is exhilarating instead of exhausting — a way that energizes people instead of draining them.

Imagine running a race. You’re hyper-focused on where the other runners are, so focused in fact that it sometimes distracts you and disrupts your stride. With each misstep, other runners move in closer, causing you to look more frequently, and the cycle continues until you’re far behind. 

Now, imagine running the same race while turned inward, believing that you will do your best. Because of your training and commitment to continuously improving yourself, your best today is better than your best yesterday. 

If your personal best isn’t enough to beat the competition, it won’t improve if your focus is on beating them. It is more likely that your performance will be worse because your outward focus increases stress, which diminishes your overall performance. 

And if your personal best is enough to beat them, you’ll beat them by an even wider margin if you focus on your performance, not theirs.

How to Develop Continuous Improvement Culture

Highly effective organizations take time to develop a continuous improvement culture because it relies on internal engagement, relationships, and systems working to do their very best, not just better than the competition. 

Here are three ways leaders can help kick-start their own continuous improvement culture. 

 Hone More Positive Relationships

The cornerstone of any culture is its relationships. So, it makes sense that creating a culture that continuously improves should start with the way team members, leaders, and management treat each other. 

If your relationships are great, use that as a tool to make them even better. Create better channels of communication, offer more one-on-one sessions with team members to share their thoughts and concerns, and create opportunities to support every member with the resources and tools they need to thrive. 

When relationships improve, everything that comes after improves as well. 

Build the Capacity of Others

The most valuable resource at any organization is its people. People drive creativity, they create innovation, develop customer relationships, improve productivity, and map out effective systems. 

When you continually invest in others, you build their capacity to do something beyond their personal best, ultimately increasing the capacity of your organization to succeed. 

Improve Systems and Organizations

One of the biggest areas for improvement in any organization is within its systems and organizations. Every leader should regularly ask themselves these questions: 

  • Are the systems we use serving us? 
  • How can our systems improve? 
  • What can we do to increase our organizational capacity? 
  • What technology is available to help our systems serve us better? 

These are just a few examples, but they demonstrate how leaders should regularly think about their organization’s systems. 

And, when leaders have positive relationships with teams who are well-supported and respected, those teams can provide feedback that offer even more opportunities for improved systems. 

Continuous improvement is just one trademark of a great work culture. Find out what you can do to reinvigorate the culture within your organization. Download our free workbook.