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Sustaining Improvements: Lessons Learned - Raphael L. Vitalo and Joseph P. Vitalo

Mining Learning From Performance
The Advantages
Solving the Problem of Sustaining Change: An Application of SRLD
Step 1 - Judge Status
Step 2 - Uncover Reasons
What Enables Sustainment
What Hinders Sustainment
Step 3 - Extract Learning
How to Ensure Improvements Sustain
Step 4 - Set Direction - Building in Sustainment
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Recently, a company we encountered began a lean initiative in its manufacturing component. We were visiting the company on a related issue during which we uncovered that the company had previously implemented a Total Productive Maintenance (TPM) and a 6S initiative. Curious, we asked how they were received. We were told that they had been received well by employees and they produced important benefits at the time. We asked what was happening with them today. We learned that the follow through on preventive maintenance regimens and 6S was poor. The two obvious questions we raised were "why" and "how are you ensuring that your new initiative does not end up the same way?" These questions raised a concern. "If we were not able to sustain our last effort to continuously improve, why should we believe that this new application of lean tools will sustain?" This is a question that the steering team for any improvement initiative should raise for itself, as decade after decade we seem to re-discover and re-apply a newly branded version of an old problem solving method to get better at what we do.

The company asked our help and we suggested a simple solution—"Let's conduct a mining learning from performance session with the people knowledgeable of what happened with TPM and 6S and use what we learn to ensure that the improvements you develop in this new initiative sustain." The company agreed. The product we produced—augmented with learning from other lean improvement efforts—provides assistance to all people who seek to have the improvements they implement sustain.


Mining Learning From Performance

Our process for mining learning has just four steps. They are—(1) Judge status, (2) Uncover reasons, (3) Extract learning, and (4) Set direction for improved performance (Exhibit 1). Our acronym for the process is SRLD—Status, Reason, Learning, and Direction.

Exhibit 1. The SRLD Process
  Step 1   Step 2   Step 3   Step 4  
  Judge Status Uncover Reasons Extract Learning Set Direction  

We have applied SRLD at the individual or team level for over 10 years. It is an engine of continuous personal development when applied at the individual level. It works as an engine of renewal for initiatives performed by teams and organizations.


The Advantages

Using SRLD speeds the cycle time of learning, eliminates rework, and offers a number of value-adding benefits. For example, it generates knowledge we can immediately share with others. What people learn is not locked within their behavior; it is recorded and available to others for their use. Since learning by SRLD is both public and reproducible, others can review our method, the information we considered, and verify our conclusions. This allows them to develop their own conviction about its correctness.

As an open and documented method, you can do SRLD as a group. When done as a group, it provides a means for engaging and involving people in sharing their information and ideas thereby enriching the source material from which you derive your learning and the value adding benefits it generates. Given that SRLD's output is recorded, you can transfer the knowledge you generate in many ways. For example, you can incorporate it into written work standards, performance guides, and visual aids. You can use it to build training programs that transfer your learning to workers throughout your company rapidly.

Finally, we have found that SRLD's efficiency in generating learning and its systematic format for expressing a learning make it a rich supply system of usable contents for best practice information systems. It avoids a common problem these systems experience—namely, being clogged with contents that range from mere observations to speculative musings all mingled together. Automation may make access to these contents easy, but the utility of what you retrieve is limited.


Solving the Problem of Sustaining Change: An Application of SRLD

We set our meeting goal and agenda and gathered the team together to begin its work. Each team member was previously trained in Working With Others skills.1 These skills ensure a meeting free of waste due to miscommunication and discord. As its first order of business, the team reviewed its goal and agenda. The abridged statement of its goal was, "To better sustain the improvements we implement by learning from our past efforts to sustain TPM and 6S so that our business truly continuously improves." The team then set its ground rules for extracting and applying what we would learn. It adopted some commonly used rules (e.g., one speaker at a time, leave nothing unsaid, use your Working With Others skills) and added a few specifically for this assignment. First, team members would assume responsibility for checking their facts with others not in the room. This meant we would meet twice so that they would have time to speak with employees in different work areas and at different job levels (managers, supervisors, and non- and nonsupervisors). We all agreed that the problem was broadly based and needed all the perspectives we could gather to ensure that we understood the facts correctly. Second, we would push for verifiable information, not just opinion. This too was important as it ensured some level of validity to the learning we produced. It also provided us an objective basis for deciding among conflicting perspectives. With our ground rules established, we reviewed our work process (see Exhibit 1, above) and started our work.


Step 1 - Judge Status

  Exhibit 2. Step 1 - Judge Status  




  1. Record the task that was to be accomplished.
  2. Document your targets for achievement.
  3. Record the results you produced.
  4. Judge how well you realized your targets.

In this step, we identify that task that was to be accomplished, its targets for success, how well its performers did, and where their achievement stood relative to their goals (Exhibit 2).

SRLD begins with identifying the task that was to be performed. Here, the task was to sustain the application of 6S and preventive maintenance (PM) (Exhibit 3). Next, we record the targets for success that were set for doing that task, how well each was realized, and where that achievement stood relative to our goals. Not uncommonly, no one had actually recorded a target for sustaining 6S and performing PMs, but everyone agreed that the implicit expectation was 100% compliance—meaning, 100% of the designated work areas maintained to 6S standards and 100% of the scheduled PMs performed on time.
  Exhibit 3. Status of the Sustaining Task  

Sustain the application of 6S and Preventive Maintenance (PM)


  • 100% of designated work areas have 6S implemented
  • 100% of scheduled PMs completed on time
  • 30% of designated areas have 6S implemented
  • 30% of scheduled PMs completed as scheduled
  • Performance of task is below expectations

Next, we recorded the results achieved. Compliance with 6S can be measured using simple observations, but we also wanted to know whether everyone saw the same thing. For example, if people differed in their judgments as to whether 6S was being done and, in fact, it was not being done—that would tell us that one reason it was not being sustained was that people did not understand what constituted a 6S maintained workplace. As it turned out, perceptions about 6S were consistent. It was estimated that not more than 30% of the designated work areas were maintained to 6S standards. Direct observations supported this estimate.

As to PMs, we encountered an unusual situation. The department had an accounting system that tracked and reported the completion of PMs. It consistently reported that PMs were completed 100% of the time. In contrast, the estimate of completion reported by people on the floor averaged around 30%. In this instance, the formal accounting system turned out to be wrong. Our first-hand observations on the floor confirmed the 30% estimate. A closer look at the accounting system revealed that the system simply counted the number of PM authorization sheets returned with "Done" checked off. It did not periodically audit the performance of PMs to ensure the validity of what its PM authorization sheets reported.

Once you record your task, target, and achievement, you judge how well you accomplished the task. A task may be judged as performed to expectation, above expectation, or below expectation. Clearly, success in sustaining the application of 6S and the performance of PMs was below expectation (Exhibit 3, above).


Step 2 - Uncover Reasons
  Exhibit 4. Step 2- Uncover Reasons  




  1. Uncover why we accomplished as much as we did.
  2. Uncover why we did not accomplish more than we did.
  3. Organize the reasons by causes.
  4. Record the reasons.

With the status of the task clarified, we needed to understand the reasons why the observed results were achieved (Exhibit 4). Each team member contacted various other employees to share the perceived status and solicit their thinking about two questions. The first question was. “What are the reasons we did as well as we have done in sustaining improvements?” The second question was, “What kept us from doing even better?” We always pursue both tracks no matter what judgment we conclude as to status. The reason is simple. It is just as important to continue to do what worked, as it is to replace what did not work. Do one without the other and you compromise your learning and your chances to improve your next performance.

When the team members reassembled, they shared what they learned from others and what they understood from their own experience. As we collected the judgments they had gathered, we asked for the facts that supported the judgments team members reported. For example, if one reason for success was that people had the knowledge and skills needed to do their 6S and PM tasks, we asked, “How was that known?”

We used a set of causal factors to prompt thinking and organize the reasons we uncovered (Exhibit 5). We developed them based on our own experience as well as the prior work of Gilbert (1978) and Carkhuff (1983). We began with the reasons why we did as well as we did in sustaining change (What Enabled Success). Then, the team addressed the why we did not do better in sustaining change (What Hindered Success ).

The team uncovered 26 reasons why sustaining 6S and performing PMs did as well as it did and why it ultimately failed. Here are the highlights.


Exhibit 5. Factors That Enable and Hinder Success

  • Physical capabilities relative to the task's requirements
  • Desire or motivation
  • Knowledge, skills, and proficiency levels of each relative to task requirements
  • Alignment with respect to the task's purpose and approach
  • Status as existing and documented
  • Status as to design (doable and effective as a method for implementing the task)
  • Resources (space, equipment, tools, materials, task inputs, funds)
  • Expectation/Feedback information
    • Assignment (Do what?)
    • Method (How?)
    • Results Expected (Achieve what?)
    • Results Achieved (Accomplished what?)
    • Success Realized (Performed how well?)
  • Incentives
    • Recognition/Rewards for correct performance
    • Consequences for nonperformance
  • Support from other interfacing roles and organizations

1. Front-line workers, supervisors, managers, and executives.






What Enabled Success

Initial success was driven by the energy and desire of front-line workers to improve their work settings. Employees were also enthusiastic about having an opportunity to influence their work. Their initial commitment was reinforced by experiencing a direct and immediate benefit from doing the tasks. Specifically, they valued working in a clean and organized area, and they experienced less frustration in doing their jobs. They were trained in 6S and in implementing their PM tasks, and demonstrated proficiency in doing both.

Initially there was good alignment among all levels of employees. Upper management was involved and concerned. Supervisors worked alongside line personnel and helped solve problems and obtain resources. They scheduled time for the front-line workers to perform their 6S and PM tasks.

People credited two features of the processes used to implement 6S and preventive maintenance for its early success. The processes required keeping notes about problems discovered and the fixes made for future reference. They also incorporated a means for communicating across shifts so that problems uncovered and corrections made worked for everyone.

With regard to resources, the evidence suggested that the key enablers were the delegation of authority to the workers to fix problems when they were uncovered and to have a say in the way their work areas were organized.

To see a complete list of what helped in achieving the level of success realized, click here: List of What Helped Achievement


What Hindered Success

Even while doing 6S and PM sustained, there were issues that emerged that were not resolved. For example, providing time for the tasks sometimes required approving overtime. Overtime was allocated based on need. Seniority played no role. Workers with more seniority resented workers with less seniority getting overtime ahead of them. Some workers resented what they perceived as the inequitable distribution of rewards. Tracking of rewards was informal and errors were acknowledged. Also, there was irritation with a few employees who misused time allowed for maintaining their areas. The consensus view was that about 10% of the workers “gamed” the system. Finally, when workers made improvements to areas and those improvements reduced the labor needed, the affected workers were given other jobs. This was positive, but many times those jobs had less pay than the previous positions the workers held. Taken together, however, these problems detracted from satisfaction but did not deter continuance of the programs.

There was also a problem with redundancy of effort that was unaddressed. For example, a review of some PM work showed that mechanics and operators were duplicating maintenance work on the some machines. The key factor that unraveled sustaining 6S and PM performance, however, was the breakdown in management’s support with the effort and its effects on incentives and resources. Management’s priorities, as expressed in their feedback to supervisors, appeared to change. They ceased to address sustaining 6S and preventive maintenance. Rather, they narrowed their feedback and other communications to the issue of meeting production targets. With this shift, supervisor support for workers doing 6S and PM tasks evaporated. Time was no longer allocated to the tasks, resources were not provided, and the cross-shift communication meetings fell away. This change in emphasis by management, in effect, revised the incentive system operating in the workplace. The new incentives reinforced a return to the way things operated before 6S and PM were introduced.

Also, the information system reporting the status of preventive maintenance became a “check-off-the-box” exercise. It ceased to provide a valid reflection of the actual state of PM performance. Hence, the feedback loop to management and supervisors was corrupted. Worse still, when pressed on this issue, everyone seemed to be aware of it. This too undermined the motivation of workers, as they read the indifference to incorrect feedback as further proof that sustaining 6S and PM was no longer a priority concern. The only feedback people got, once management’s priorities shifted, was in relation to meeting output targets.

The failure of managers to address what was happening was clearly a significant hindering factor. When asked, management continued to assert that they wanted the 6S and preventive maintenance to be done, and they shared that they were aware of the drop off in sustaining each. Yet, they never systematically investigated why the problem existed or explored how to correct it. Neither did management recognize that their push for production results affected how supervisors promoted and supported sustaining 6S and doing PM. They assumed that supervisors would continue with the prior goals as they pursued the new priorities. They also expected the supervisors to “push back” if what they were asked to do was not feasible. Managers did not read their supervisors correctly. Rather than push back, supervisors and front-line workers alike read the behavior of management as a return to old priorities. Those priorities were sustaining a high rate of output. This confirmed their suspicion that the 6S and PM tasks were no longer important and further undermined their motivation to persevere in doing these tasks.

To see a complete list of what hindered achieving even a greater level of success realized, click here: List of What Hindered Achievement


Step 3 - Extract Learning
  Exhibit 6. Step 3 - Extract Learning  




  1. Form a learning for each reason.
  2. Verify that each learning contains all its required components.
  3. Organize the list of learning.
  4. Eliminate redundancies.

In the SRLD method, each reason for the results realized and not realized is converted into a learning (Exhibit 6). It is this learning that guides improved performance. We define a learning as the advice you would give someone else doing the same task based on what happened. A useful statement of learning must have three elements: the advice, the reason why it is important to apply, and what benefit it will produce (Exhibit 7). The "advice" component tells what you should do to be successful. The "reason" component tells the advantage doing it will produce. The "benefit" component tells the improved outcome that will result. The components educate and motivate a reader and, together, increase the likelihood that the person will use the learning. We use a standard format to guide people in producing consistently complete items of learning. Exhibit 7 includes an example of a complete statement of a learning in our standard format.


Exhibit 7. A Complete Statement of a Learning

  Advice Reason Benefit  
  Tells what you should do to be successful Tells the advantage implementing the advice will create Tells the improved outcome the advice will produce  

[State advice] “Do...” [State reason] “because...” [State benefit] and that...*

* Use this format to ensure that you have created all three components of a learning. Adjust the final text, if needed, to make it readable.

Example of a Learning From Analyzing the Sustaining of 6S and PMs
  “Make sure that performers of a task experience an immediate benefit from doing the task because that will sustain their motivation and that motivation will drive continued task performance.”  

For brevity sake, we will summarize the key items of learning here. To view the complete list of the learning the team developed, click on this link: Complete List of Learning.


How to Ensure Improvements Sustain


Make sure all employees (front-line workers, supervisors, managers, and executives) are aligned and motivated to do their tasks. Unaligned or unmotivated people do not sustain change. Be certain that everyone with a role to play has the personal resources needed to do it well. This means they must be equipped physically (energy, strength, coordination, etc.) and intellectually (knowledge, skills, and proficiencies), and must possess any other personal characteristics needed for success (e.g., willingness to push-back should matters go awry).


Make sure the improved process is completely documented. To be complete, the method must include guidance for preparing, doing, and assessing performance of the improved process and for registering its results. Make certain that people report any problems they encounter in implementing the improvement and share their ideas for overcoming them. This will uncover and clear obstacles to the continued use of the improved process.

Be certain that performers of the improved process derive a benefit from doing it. This benefit should flow from the task itself—e.g., reduced machine breakdowns remove a waste-related frustration in getting one job done or an orderly workplace improves the quality of peoples’ work setting. This immediate and direct reinforcement will sustain their motivation and energize their continued use of the improved approach.

Be sure that the new process has no adverse impact on people. Recall in our 6S and PM examples that supervisors pressed performers on producing products. You cannot expect people to implement a new task, in this case 6S and PMs, when doing so detracts from their ability to satisfy a competing and higher priority task and makes them subject to negative feedback.

Another avoidable worker frustration that can erode sustaining an improvement is the failure to build in coordination across functions and across shifts. Everyone affected by a new improvement must be continuously informed about its status and the development of solutions to problems in sustaining its use must be shared.

Work Setting

As to setting, provide people the resources they need to continue to implement the improvement that has been made. Be certain people have the authority to make the decisions needed to implement the improvement. Ensure they have the time and information they require to do the task. Be certain you provide them information about any problems they might encounter and any fixes that have been introduced. The failure to provide this information to all parties results in them experiencing the frustration in implementing the improvement and, later, the added anger of knowing that it could have been prevented, if people had only shared what they knew.

Be certain that there are explicit expectations for doing the new task and targets defined for how well they are to be accomplished. Be sure that feedback to workers about their performance is valid and regular.

With regard to supervisors and managers, make certain that sustaining the improvement is an explicit expectation of their jobs and that they are provided the resources needed to meet that expectation. Also, make establishing and maintaining an accurate feedback system one of their responsibilities. Ensure that supervisors and managers are accountable for producing results on these expectations. To set expectations and ignore whether they are being realized is wasteful and destroys the credibility of every initiative.

Carefully align the incentives within your company to reinforce the performance of the new task. Be sure that recognition and rewards are provided equitably based on verified performance. This requires that your performance feedback systems supply valid information. It also requires that your managers and supervisors have the discipline and courage to use objective data as the bases for crediting performance and counseling nonperformance.


Step 4 - Set Direction
  Exhibit 8. Step 4 - Set Direction  




  1. Select learning for immediate action.
  2. Define an action for using each selected learning.
  3. Organize the actions.
  4. Integrate actions where possible.
  5. Assign actions to people identifying a date for each action's completion.

Your direction states the actions you will take to improve your next task performance. You set direction by selecting from the learning you produced, those that you can incorporate before you next do your task. How many action items you specify depends on whether you alone will be carrying them out and how much time you have to prepare. Ultimately, you will apply all your learning, and it may be possible to do that in your next cycle of performance. If not, you need to focus on your most critical learning so you make your greatest gain possible in task success. Exhibit 8 presents the activities we do to set direction.

The team implementing the SRLD was charged was charged with using their learning to improve sustaining future improvements. The team defined three actions that would fully apply all it learned. The first action was to build a check sheet (Sustaining Change Check Sheet). The check sheet listed each learning derived from their SRLD. The second action item was to produce a plan for sustaining improvements as part of each of the team’s future improvement efforts. In building the guide, we hitchhiked on the team’s work by building a generic seven-step process for sustaining future process improvements (Sustaining Change Planning Guide, Exhibit 9). The third action was to test each plan the team built by applying the Sustaining Change Check Sheet the team developed. This step allowed each team to verify whether it was using the business's learning about how to ensure improvements sustain. In this way, the business would ensure that its future efforts to sustain improvements would produce better results than its previous efforts. The first and second actions were to be completed within two weeks. The third action was to be implemented at the very next instance the team built a plan for sustaining the improvements it made.

  Exhibit 9. Sustaining Change Planning Guide  
Instructions: Create a plan for how you will sustain the use of the improvements you made. Include each of the following six steps. Add details to each step that record what you will do, who will do it, and by when. Use the “Tips” provided with each step to prompt your thinking about the details you should specify.
1. Prepare a work standard to guide implementing the business improvement.
  Tip: Assign and schedule the preparation of the work standard. Specify that it should identify what is to be done, when, by whom, where, how, and why. Detail how you will pilot test the method by asking performers to use it and provide feedback on its completeness, effectiveness, and ease of implementation. Record that you will use this feedback to fine tune the method and your guidance for doing it. Once drafted, test your documentation using the Sustaining Change Check Sheet and adjust it to incorporate any features that are missing.
2. Measure whether the improvement continues to be used and produces results.
  Tip: Detail how you will measure both the performance of the improvement as documented and the results it produces. Record how you will make status on each visible to all people involved in sustaining the improvement. Detail how you will audit periodically the measurement system to ensure its accuracy.
3. Align enabling systems.
  Tip: State how you will ensure that your enabling systems (e.g., appraisal and feedback, recognition and rewards, and incentives systems) each support sustaining the improvements. Record how you will make certain that time, materials, authority, information, and other required assets are supplied as needed. Check your readiness by applying the Sustaining Change Check Sheet. Correct any deficiencies you uncover.
4. Prepare people to sustain the improvements.
  Tip: Record how you will prepare people to sustain the improvements made. Address how you will ensure everyone is aligned with and motivated to support sustainment. State how you will ensure that they have the personal resources to do their roles well.
5. Recognize achievement.
  Tip: State how you will credit correct performance and ensure that it is done fairly.
6. Ensure improvements sustain.

Tip: Record how you will detect failures in sustaining the process improvement. State how you will involve all parties in uncovering the causes for failures and generating remedies. Explain how you will ensure that you act quickly to remove barriers to success.

7. Continuously improve in sustaining the process improvement.

Tip: Record that you will conduct periodic renewal sessions to reflect on how well you are sustaining each process improvement. Use these sessions to extract new learning, set a direction for greater achievement, and reinforce everyone's alignment and energy. Specify that these meetings occur monthly until sustainment is established, then quarterly. Detail how you will involve all the people responsible for sustaining each improvement.




Byron, J.S. and Bierley, P.A. (2003) Working With Others. O'Fallon, MO: Lowrey Press.

Dewey, John (1910) How people think. Lexington, MA: Heath. Available online at:

Gilbert, T.F. (1978) Human competence. New York: Mc Graw Hill.

Carkhuff, R.R. (1983) Sources of human productivity. Amherst, MA: Human Resource Development Press, Inc.

1 Working With Others skills are clarifying, confirming, constructive criticism, and hitchhiking. These basic skills enable people to efficiently understand the ideas and information another person is sharing and add their ideas to it in ways that build toward better solutions together (Byron and Bierley, 2003).


Published February 2008; Revised July 18, 2022; Revised November 18, 2023

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