Implementing a culture of continuous improvement can be a tricky business, especially for the service sectors! So, how can a Continuous Improvement Center of Excellence (CI CoE) change the Operational Excellence landscape for the service sectors? First, let’s take a brief look at a more mature part of the organization, the Project Management Office (PMO).


For years, IT departments have struggled to deliver projects on time and within budget. But with today’s emphasis on getting more bang for the buck, IT has to rein in projects more closely than ever. That challenge has led many to turn to project management offices (PMOs) as a way to boost IT efficiency, cut costs, and improve on project delivery in terms of time and budget.

– Megan Santosus,

Here’s the truth; The PMO just gets it! Their purpose is to reduce project cost and improve on-time delivery of worthwhile and impacting projects. Because these efforts are centralized into the PMO, there is accountability and support. Sounds like a winning recipe for success! Imagine if we took this Center of Excellence-like PMO framework and leveraged it for Operational Excellence and Continuous Improvement!

(NOTE 1) Look for a future article where I discuss merging Continuous Improvement with the PMO.

(NOTE 2) When discussing Operational Excellence, I am referring to the efforts of programs such as Lean Six Sigma, process improvements, continuous improvements, culture of Kaizen, Lean thinking, and so on.



There are many reasons why Operational Excellence might fail, and I am sure that you can think of a few reasons too, but here is a list from my experience.

  • Process improvements are executed in isolation.
  • The positive business impact of improvement changes are poorly, if at all, communicated.
  • There is a lack of leadership support.
  • Training (especially Lean Six Sigma) is insufficient or nonexistent.
  • There is a lack of applied knowledge after training that results in continued “firefighting” or business as usual.
  • Improvements lack scope, alignment, measurement, ownership, and governance (one or many of these).
  • Initiatives are seen as a “flavor of the month”, perceived or otherwise.

As I see it, all of these failures are because Operational Excellence and related improvement initiatives are not a centralized effort (like the PMO). These efforts should be connected to the “hub” of a Continuous Improvement Center of Excellence.


Imagine a wheel without a hub (the hub is the center part of the wheel that allows for rotation). Without a well-functioning and smooth-operating hub (or a hub at all) the wheel will not freely rotate and will be out of balance. In services, the Continuous Improvement Center of Excellence is that hub for Operational Excellence. The hub is where information flows from all other business functions within the organization and enables continuous improvement to add value. It is this connection, or pathway, that leverages and aligns process improvement opportunities and operational excellence standardization.

Michal Piatkowski, BPM Manager at Apriso, stated that the “Center of Excellence is more than a method of enforcing best practices. It becomes a means of leveraging the experience and skills of every […] employee in the enterprise, ensuring that improvements, no matter where they come from, are discovered, evaluated and deployed everywhere – to the benefit of the entire enterprise.”


The Process Excellence Network discussed a Center of Excellence with Greg Bussing, Director of Continuous Improvement at ConocoPhillip, where he stated, “we make the business better at getting better… One of the things that we’ve done – as well as others in the market – is a lot of improvement work. But it hasn’t always lead to continuous improvement. For instance, you may have a really good person whom you give a project to. They go do it well and the results improve but then they go focus on something else.”

Greg’s example illustrates the approach that many organizations, perhaps yours too, have executed in their Operational Excellence programs and efforts. You have probably heard the saying, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” The Continuous Improvement Center of Excellence function influences the business and its Operational Excellence efforts in a way that leverages all employees to rethink their processes, speak in the same language, and run in the same direction to ultimately create that culture of continuous improvement.


1. Create a community and culture of continuous improvement within the organization

The CI CoE is all about creating a community that collectively and interdependently achieves sustainable business process improvement. In this sense, it has less to do with utilizing a specific tool. It means breaking down silos by bringing people and teams together. It means changing and challenging the “this is the way we’ve always done it” mantra. It means engaging and enabling employees to think creatively.

2. Dedicate full-time resources that have executive representation

The Continuous Improvement Center of Excellence team should have full-time certified and experienced Lean Six Sigma individuals (Green Belts, Black Belts, Master Black Belts, Lean experts, etc.). Each functional team should also have representation, and where complexity is an issue, they should have resources dedicated to supporting the improvement changes.

Aristotle said, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” That is why Lean Six Sigma experts must do more than strictly manage improvement projects. I would suggest that the CI CoE team be given the time to flexibly manage process improvement projects while also supporting the activities that enable the development of a culture of continuous improvement. From my experience, all good intentions aside, Lean Six Sigma experts are often given too many projects and not enough flexible time to support organizational improvement efforts such as consulting, coaching, and training others.

It is also imperative that the Continuous Improvement Center of Excellence function and team reside close to the top hierarchical levels within the organization. This allows the business to achieve more Operational Excellence success because they are able to reach all functions of the organization with adequate responsibility and accountability. I have seen organizations take their continuous improvement team and embed them deep into the various functions, and the results are ultimately a greater disconnect in strategy alignment at the expense of siloed process improvements.

3. Train, coach, and support the organization

The Continuous Improvement Center of Excellence team should be a central part in coaching and mentoring leadership to talk about the different improvement opportunities and to ensure they focus on the right things. The team can also provide core and supplemental training so that everyone gets consistent information and applies their learning universally.

4. Enable improvements that are bottom-up driven, top-down supported, with all levels engaged

One way to enable this is to implement a virtual suggestion box to generate ideas and manage process improvement ideas. Personally, I call this tool the “Kaizen Repository” or “Kaizen Ideas Library”. These ideas are then managed and supported by the CI CoE as appropriate based on the scope and impact of the improvement idea. Where necessary, Lean Six Sigma experts can be assigned to manage the improvement ideas as projects, but there should also be an expectation that the various teams be accountable to execute on improvement ideas. For example, simple or ‘small’ ideas may be implemented by the various teams on a just-do-it approach, however, the CI CoE should still be aware of the improvements being implemented.

Though not a requirement for success, I have seen great success come from organizations that are willing to reward employees for their improvement ideas and the implementation of those ideas. For me, that is part of creating a culture of continuous improvement.

5. Build on and communicate success stories

In the whitepaper A Framework for a BPM Center of Excellence from, they conveyed, “managing business processes means to continually reflect on the way an organization executes its activities in order to achieve ongoing performance improvements. […] This task requires high familiarity with [process improvement] methodologies, techniques, and tools along the entire process lifecycle as well as the capability to convert actual project impact into highly visible success stories…”

The Continuous Improvement Center of Excellence is a cost investment with a long term perspective. This is why it is important that they understand and measure all process improvements, not just the ones that they specifically lead, and then communicate those success stories throughout the organization. Success stories will be a testament of a successful and thriving improvement program and help ignite that culture of continuous improvement.



Tell me your thoughts in the comments and let’s open a dialog. I would be excited to hear other opinions on this topic.

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Chad Higgins

Chad Higgins

Contributing Author

With 12 years of diverse project management experience, Chad brings a unique perspective to Whether it was at the start of his career as an ice cream store manager or more recently as a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt and ITIL leader in the telecommunications arena, Chad has always zeroed in on the kinds of changes that make a business function more effectively. Chad's formal background in process improvement complements his seasoned project repertoire. He's never found a team or process that couldn't improve in some area, and Chad is a firm believer that a healthy company culture is fundamental to any process improvement initiative.


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