How Continuous Improvement Can Make a Difference to You and the Business

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Gary Thompson

Continuous Improvement

How a career in Continuous Improvement helps the organization face its business challenges – and helps you become world class at your job!

Continuous Improvement exposes an employee to many different aspects of uplifting business support – and helps the organization overcome its challenges.

With the drive to move away from carbon-based exports and create a more sustainable economy, governments in the Middle East have developed objectives for their economies to become more competitive, reduce the dependency on foreign workers and enhance the knowledge and potential of their citizens.

Businesses face many challenges today

In my first article of 2019, I explored the benefits that can be delivered to both the organization and employee alike and the career opportunities that emerge within contemporary business support or shared service functions – the hub that delivers business support processing to internal or external customers.
But there are other activities needed to fine-tune any facility into an efficient, effective provider of business services and take it to the next, world class, level; bringing with them more career opportunities for Regional citizens.
We are all cogs in a machine: challenges faced by a business drives challenges in business support

Companies across the Middle East region are facing new challenges – internally and externally – that their current way of working may not be able to solve. Business Executives are driving profit, seeking ways to move ahead of their competitors, attract new customers, develop and supply new products and gain a larger market or wallet share.

These challenges require an organization to embrace new ways of working together with the ever-increasing raft of new technology – all in pursuit of a better customer experience at a reduced cost to serve.

Conflicting challenges?

Globally, organizations are striving to get better performance out of their workforce, retain the best talent, and redeploy in a changing world of automation tools that have become more business focused rather than the domain of the IT department.

So, it’s not just Sales and Marketing that have to address these challenges – Business Support has its role to play, too. Customers are not just the people who buy products and services from an organization. Increasingly, employees are being seen as “customers” of internal services delivered by functions such as Finance, HR and IT – having their own demands to ensure their efforts are supported, needs are satisfied and the business as a whole runs like a finely tuned machine.

The impact of business challenge is pan-organization and directly affects business support and Shared Services functions in the drive to provide better services that its customers require, at a competitive cost. Business support must step up a gear and move to the next level of World-class business support or Shared Services functions take traditional “back office” processing activities and transform them into a service delivery operation that is efficient and effective in providing business support processing. In doing so, people, process, technology and the workplace is enhanced, opportunities are provided for career development, and a change in management and employee behavior is embedded to develop a simple processing mindset into a culture of ownership.

But to go further, business support should become a business within a business – an operation focused on customer-centric service delivery, serving the organization as if it was an independent commercial activity itself; and acting as a strategic partner, supporting the business in its drive to grow, become more profitable and address the challenges it faces in the market.

To do this, other activities are needed to augment the operational hub of business support to create the focus and independence of a business unit: An Ecosystem around operations (see chart below). This involves developing new roles, learning new skills and upskilling both employees and management alike.


From this ecosystem there is one area that is key for enhancing performance and taking business support and Shared Services to the next level: Continuous Improvement. As careers go, this is an exciting place to work!

Continuous Improvement – the path to process excellence

How much change is too much change? Change fatigue impacts many Shared Services and business support environments. However, in my experience change fatigue is a symptom of “imposed” change. Here is a solution…

Experience has taught me that consistent and sustainable enhancement of overall productivity and efficiency in business support is achieved through improvements derived from a culture that spans across the whole function – starting at the root level and continually striving to make services better in a coordinated way.

In other words: A culture of Continuous Improvement.

Continuous Improvement is not just a function in business support, it is baked into the very heart of every world-class operation and adopted by all involved in delivering services to the business. As a culture it has five key elements that need to be embedded into the day-to-day thinking of all of the workforce (see below).

Building this culture requires specialist support from an elite team: A small core of experts supporting and developing continuous improvement champions to lead issue resolution and seek potential areas to improve the way a support function or team works and become more efficient and effective in what they do. Embedding this kind of culture change is not easy as it involves changing the mindset of processing staff from being “doers” to being “owners” of the work they undertake.

Continuous Improvement not only offers an individual the opportunity to be at the forefront of this change in culture, but also requires learning and technical skills for:

  • supporting functions to increase productivity and reduce costs through simplification, standardization, optimization and innovation; while at the same time
  • acting as a bridge across all areas of support and enablement to ensure initiatives are coordinated and aligned to business strategy – becoming a strategic business partner to the organization.

Move yourself to the next level

As a member of the Continuous Improvement elite team, you will need to develop a wide range of knowledge and experience across all elements of people, process and technology within a business support or Shared Services center:

  • Operational excellence and sustainability: Providing support and implementation help for the continuous improvement initiatives of Operational Teams, sustaining a culture and performance enhancing management system, defining business process requirements and oversight of advanced automation initiatives.
  • Staff learning and development: Ensuring process knowledge and expertise development of operational staff and line management through training, coaching and certification, driving a fact-based, customer centric and data-driven culture across the business support ecosystem.
  • Tools and Methodologies: Developing tools and frameworks, driving process automation and being a valued member of an automation Center of Excellence.
  • Performance Management and Analytics: End-to-end performance dashboard definition for performance monitoring and a single source of truth, driving the use of data and analytics maturity and active involvement in analysis of performance issues, again supporting the processing teams.
  • Governance and Compliance: Proactive Governance, data-driven performance monitoring and reviews, process audits, challenge and optimization of policies, rules and regulation and performance reviews of processes and services.
  • Strategy and Business Efficiency: Oversight of performance initiatives, end-to-end process improvement and common business component identification, benchmarking exercises, business process maturity assessments and customer strategy alignment.

This elite team also has a major role to play in sustaining and reusing change. I have seen many Shared Services Centers and business support functions undertake transformation efforts that deliver remarkable reductions in turnaround times and cost per transaction. But in many instances, after the initial successes, performance would plateau and sometimes gains evaporated.

That’s a “sustain” issue.

In some cases, the benefits proved brief because the changes solved an immediate issue or challenge, and once solved, the lessons learned were consigned to history. But a fix in one isolated area, once forgotten, does not provide the ability to identify and solve similar problems elsewhere in the processing area. And such changes do not provide leaders and managers with the insight to see that similar issues may occur in other areas.

That’s a reuse issue.

And what about when the solutions only address the symptoms, not the causes. All these issues, and more, are faced daily by members of Continuous Improvement teams, and supported by giving the workforce the tools and frameworks to continuously improve what they do and the way they do it; drive customer centricity; and embed a culture of continuous improvement. What better way of uplifting business support, helping the organization face its business challenges and becoming world class at your job?!


Note: this article is adapted from an article previously published in the UAE Ministry of Interior Quality Magazine.

About the author:
Gary Thompson is a Business Support, Shared Services and Outsourcing Specialist based in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. In a career spanning over three decades, Gary has been both client and consultant in global and regional enterprises across the Middle East, Europe, Asia and Africa; uplifting the performance of business support, operations and enablement by transformation and automation - in house, through shared services or by outsourcing – working with organizations in the Commercial, Banking and Semi Government Sectors.

Gary is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants in the UK and a regular Speaker, SME panelist and Workshop Lead at Shared Services, Performance Excellence and Business Support Automation Conferences in the Middle East, Africa and Europe. Contact him on