When MROs implement continuous improvement (CI) processes and are dissatisfied with the results, many leaders blame the program. But that's usually not the issue. Lack of results often stems from a lack of acceptance in the ranks. It's the human element—specifically, the buy-in and acceptance of the people in the organization—that makes or breaks an effort to improve efficiency. Knowing this, the quest to eliminate error and waste in maintenance processes becomes less about which program to use and more about how to get people on board with it.

“I've had a couple clients put their [CI] programs on pause to go back and re-boot them to gain the needed cultural acceptance,” says Brian Prentice, partner at Oliver Wyman, a global management consultancy. Prentice recently co-authored the report, “Culture Clash: Diagnosing the Strengths and Weaknesses of Your Most Important Element for Change.” In it, he explains that continuous improvement is not a quick-fix solution but “a deeply rooted and unrelenting drive to constantly enhance business processes and eliminate waste. It is a philosophy, not just a set of tools.”

A CI re-boot to get technicians working cohesively and enthusiastically toward organizational efficiency goals calls for stepping back to align three things, said Prentice:

•Leadership. Everyone in the top echelons of the MRO organization must agree on the goals and commit across all divisions.

•Incentives. All employees must understand what's in it for them and grasp that the CI program is a commitment to long-term change, not simply the initiative of the month. Done right, the “what's in it for them” can simply be working at a company that seeks, implements and values input, resulting in better conditions and processes.

•Visibility. Technicians must have constant visibility into the status of goals via e-mails, boards, texts and other means of communication that show where the organization stands on its progress. Visibility reinforces a program's importance and motivates continued effort.

Prentice helped one MRO re-boot after a failed CI effort. The MRO's approach had been to use a mobile CI team that traveled from division to division discovering ways to improve efficiency and implementing solutions.

The problem: “There was no real acceptance of this group,” says Prentice. “They were seen as acting on the organization rather than with it.” The CI team would institute changes and gain improvements, but as soon as they moved on to the next division, everyone would gradually return to doing things the way they had always been done.

In the repair shop, for instance, mechanics always worked on parts as they came in, regardless of urgency or availability of tools. The CI team arrived and created a workflow management program in which someone was assigned to evaluate each part as it arrived to determine repair timing, required tooling and so on. “It worked really well for three months and then the CI team left and it disintegrated. Mechanics went back to just grabbing the next item on the shelf and fixing it,” Prentice says.

After Prentice helped the organization's leaders understand the importance of gaining cultural acceptance and technician buy-in, they disbanded the CI group and integrated its people into various divisions. From within the divisions, the group members worked hand-in-hand with technicians to include them in idea generation, planning, goal-setting and every other aspect of CI. By seeking the buy-in and contributions of mechanics, two years later, throughput in that same repair shop has seen sustained improved of about 60% with no change in staffing or capital investment.

“If continuous improvement is driven by someone else and it's a third party acting on a department, no one will be excited,” Prentice says. “But if it is homegrown, you'll get enthusiasm.”

It comes down to who is creating the value—managers or workers—adds Laurent Thomas, an Oliver Wyman partner in France. “Managers tend to over-control workers, with employees at the service of managers,” he observes. “Continuous improvement puts the manager at the service of employees on the line.”

Not long ago, Thomas worked with an organization where employees “were given a lot of description about what they should do, what steps to take, how long each step should take. These descriptions were written by a guy in an office who wasn't even in the shop,” Thomas says. “By involving the employees and asking them what should be done, we improved the output of the line by 20%.”

If your CI processes aren't working, it may be time to hit the “pause” button and take a hard look at whether your front-line technicians are fully involved and engaged in the efforts. “A continuous improvement program that's not accepted culturally squanders employee creativity,” Prentice concludes. It also squanders its chances of success.