Using Continuous Improvement Strategies to Recruit, Retain Workers


HNI Corporation engages all members in continuous improvement discussions.

A growing number of companies are working with the CIRAS Iowa Lean Consortium (ILC) on continuous improvement strategies that empower employees to be problem solvers, sending the message that workers are appreciated and valued.

Nearly 50 million workers quit their jobs in 2021 in a trend that some have called the Great Resignation. A recent Pew Research Center survey highlighted the various reasons why people quit their jobs. The third most cited reason for quitting was “felt disrespected at work,” after low pay and lack of opportunities for advancement.

“A well-implemented continuous improvement program can increase workforce retention and help an organization become an employer of choice,” said Tracy Schuster, productivity program director. “When adopted as a company mindset, a continuous improvement program can empower your workforce to become problem solvers, reduce their frustration, and help your team members find joy and purpose in their work.”

The ILC assists companies with actionable ways to implement continuous improvement tools and techniques.

“Our membership fulfills a need for ideas and resources to continue our efforts,” said Greg Neuwoehner, continuous improvement manager at ESAPCO. “It also provides us continuing education for industry professionals, training and guidance for entry-level associates, and a way to stay connected to peers.”

ESAPCO, founded in 1979, sells products to the agricultural, horticultural, building, and retail trade industries.

Even companies with a long history of successful continuous improvement efforts benefit from ILC membership.

HNI Corporation, a worldwide manufacturer of workplace furniture and residential building products, was founded in Muscatine in 1947 with the intent to employ America’s veterans returning from World War II while addressing the need for more enlightened approaches to employer employee relations. HNI has used continuous improvement thinking throughout its history and formally began its continuous improvement journey in 1992. Sharing best practices, hosting and participating in tours, networking, and attending events like the annual conference are benefits of ILC membership that HNI has used most.

As part of HNI’s continuous improvement effort, employees (referred to as members since the company’s founding) are encouraged to offer ideas for improving the workplace. Todd Murphy, vice president of continuous improvement at HNI, said that last year more than 100,000 member-implemented ideas were completed.

“When members are engaged at that level, it makes a real difference,” he said.

HNI engages people at all levels of the organization in their continuous improvement strategy.

Companies can begin the continuous improvement process on their own by simply walking through the workplace, watching the people do the work, and listening to what they say about the tasks they do. In Lean circles, it’s called the Gemba principle. If you want an outside perspective, the CIRAS productivity team can facilitate an assessment. The assessment will help businesses chart a vision and next steps.

For more information, contact Tracy Schuster at or 515-715-0164.