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Components of sustainable
improvement systems:
theory and practice
142 Carmen Jaca and Elisabeth Viles
TECNUN Escuela de Ingenieros, University of Navarra, San Sebastian, Spain
Received 15 September 2010
Accepted 13 January 2011 Ricardo Mateo
School of Economics & Business Administration, University of Navarra,
Pamplona, Spain, and
Javier Santos
TECNUN Escuela de Ingenieros, University of Navarra, San Sebastian, Spain

Purpose – The purpose of this paper is twofold: to evaluate the importance of the factors reported in
the literature as enablers of Continuous Improvement (CI) programmes and to determine the
perception of managers of different companies in the Basque Country and Navarre (Spain) regarding
the relevance of these factors to their improvement programmes.
Design/methodology/approach – In total, 15 elements have been considered to be key issues for
the sustainability of CI programmes. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 36 companies in
order to assess how the companies value the factors and how the factors are applied and measured.
Findings – The findings regarding the application and evaluation of such factors have revealed that
companies are focused on the agents associated with the achievement of results. Other factors, such as
management commitment or the promotion of team working, are highly scored and applied, but few
companies evaluate them or take actions to improve their application.
Originality/value – This paper analyzes the application of some factors considered to be enablers or
key factors for the sustainability of continuous improvement systems. Furthermore, it examines the
mechanisms or indicators which are used by some companies to measure the application of those
Keywords Spain, Continuous improvement, Team working, Employees relations,
Management commitment, Sustainability
Paper type Research paper

1. Introduction
Continuous improvement (CI) is a relatively simple principle: all members of the
organisation contribute to improving performance by continuously implementing small
changes to their work processes ( Jørgensen et al., 2003). Improvement practices have
been positively correlated with competitive advantage and have generated significant
interest as a result of different research projects and case studies during the 1990s. These
studies served to identify and further promote the importance of continuous, sustainable
and systematic management of improvement activities (Bateman and Rich, 2003;
Bateman and Arthur, 2002). Descriptions of the successful implementation of CI
programmes have been largely reported, as well as the implementation of different
models to achieve CI processes in companies ( Jørgensen et al., 2003; Bateman and Rich,
The TQM Journal
Vol. 24 No. 2, 2012
2003; Bateman and Arthur, 2002; Bessant et al., 2001; Upton, 1996; Wu and Chen, 2006).
pp. 142-154 However, a number of authors have expressed difficulties in sustaining CI over the long
r Emerald Group Publishing Limited
term, especially after an initial period of two or three years (Bessant and Caffyn, 1997;
DOI 10.1108/17542731211215080 Schroeder and Robinson, 1991). It has been documented that the results, in terms of
routines and acceptance of the system by the organisation, happen after a period of five Sustainable
years ( Jaca et al., 2010). Nowadays, companies are concerned with being flexible, improvement
responsive and able to adapt quickly to changes according to the necessity of customers.
For any organisation whose desire is to achieve flexibility and the ability to adapt to systems
changes within its environment, the implementation of a sound strategy for CI is
essential (Kaye and Anderson, 1999; Rapp and Eklund, 2002).
During the last several years, CI in organisations has been related with the concept 143
of system sustainability. Prajogo and Sohal (2004) define sustainability in this context
“as the ability of an organisation to adapt to change in the business environment, to
capture contemporary best practice methods and to achieve and maintain superior
competitive performance”. Sustainable performance has also been defined as “a multi-
dimensional concept, which adds a balanced measurement of items with direct
influence on competitive advantage, and thus the concept is contingent on sustainable
environmental factors” (Idris and Zairi, 2006). Both definitions are totally embedded
in the concept of the CI philosophy. However, it has been proven that it is not always
easy to develop those concepts into individual actions. Companies need to understand
the factors that may inhibit or enable sustainability. Unless companies identify these
factors they will not be able to take the necessary actions to encourage and achieve a
sustainable CI system in their organisation (Bateman and Arthur, 2002).
The aim of this paper is to present the most important factors related with
sustainability in CI systems identified from the literature. The presence of these factors
in the companies of Spain’s Basque Country has been evaluated, as well as if the
companies are able to measure and act on those factors. Different organisations from
northern Spain were visited and interviewed to obtain information about their
improvement systems, specifically the application and measurement of sustainability
factors. Results of the interviews are presented, including conclusions regarding the
difference between the application of those factors and their measurement.

2. Methodology
This research has been developed in two different steps. First, literature from different
case studies and research papers has been reviewed to identify 15 elements that are
considered to be key issues for the sustainability of CI programmes. This information
was used to develop a questionnaire to assess 15 factors related to CI systems. Semi-
structured interviews were conducted with 36 companies in order to assess how they
value the factors, how they apply them to their programmes and how these elements
are measured. The interviews were conducted between April 2009 and May 2009 in
Spain’s Basque Country and Navarre region. Indeed, although the size of this region
may be modest, its industry is recognised throughout Europe for its quality and
prestige. In particular, the survey was directed at companies with more than 50
employees which had participated in quality and improvement-related activities. Most
of the interviews were answered by people in charge of CI programmes.

3. Sustainability factors for CI

Sustainability factors and a brief description will be subsequently presented in the
order of importance dictated by interview results (from highest to lowest).

3.1 Management commitment and involvement

This is the first and most commonly described factor in the literature. This factor can
be an important enabler, but most of all, if it is not present, it can also be a strong
TQM inhibitor. Management’s main responsibility is to stimulate and support the effort of
24,2 employees to improve processes (Berger, 1997). Commitment in CI programmes must
come from the highest level of management (He, 2009). According to some researchers,
leadership and active commitment to CI must be demonstrated by managers at all
levels (Kaye and Anderson, 1999; Prajogo and Sohal, 2004).
Motivation derives from the success of managers explaining and communicating
144 why improvement is important (Upton, 1996). The development of strategy and
derived objectives to an improvement programme must be led by management
through proper communication (Beer, 2003).

3.2 Key performance indicators, linked to obtained results

A variety of authors highlight the importance of establishing measurement and
feedback systems in order to sustain improvement processes in organisations. The
measurement of improvement results enables a process of learning which can then
be shared by the whole organisation (Kaye and Anderson, 1999; Hsuan-Kai et al., 2004).
A business culture of data-based decisions can be cultivated through the use of
formalised monitoring and measurement systems (He, 2009; Bessant and Francis,
1999). It should be stressed that the measurement system should be applied to both
results obtained by the programme and to the improvement process itself (Beer, 2003;
Spackman, 2009).

3.3 Improvement programme objectives linked to strategic goals

Several authors agree that CI activities must be integrated into the strategic goals
of the company (Caffyn, 1999; Lagacé and Bourgault, 2003). These improvement
activities must be linked to strategic goals throughout the whole organisation, across
boundaries and at all levels (Kaye and Anderson, 1999; Asif et al., 2009). Linking
process improvement to the strategic plan provides underlying direction and challenge
to sustain the improvement effort (Spackman, 2009; Brunet and New, 2003). Indirect
metrics should be linked to the proposed objectives and activities, such as the
percentage of employees that have been trained, the number of projects completed and
the results of these projects (Spackman, 2009).

3.4 Achievement and implementation of results

To ensure the success of the CI programme, improvement must be sustained by
obtained results. The achievement of results in terms of improved standards and
solved problems will qualify the company to achieve a higher competency of its
improvement system (Wu and Chen, 2006). The need to follow the PDCA loop in
closing out actions encompasses the need to fully execute actions not only by doing
them, but also by checking that they work and taking any remedial action required
(Upton, 1996). When the implementation of actions fails to work properly, this affects
the CI system (Rapp and Eklund, 2002).

3.5 Use of appropriate methodology

Once the structure of the system is defined and established, a methodology is required
in order to carry out the improvement (Caffyn, 1999; Bisgaard, 2007). Those
philosophies (such as TQM, lean production and others) can also be important
motivators for keeping improvement on track. They can often be good starting points
for motivating people to commit to improvement, due to the fact that the methodology
provides focus (what) and detailed processes (how) for the path to improvement. This
structure and clarity is a tremendously powerful tool for unifying a group of people Sustainable
(Upton, 1996; Bhuiyan et al., 2006; Readman, 2007). improvement
3.6 Assignment of specific resources to improvement programmes: systems
economic, time, space
It is obvious that CI programmes need necessary resources and support, not only at
the early stages of implementation, but also to maintain and expand the system over 145
time. However, “lack of resources” is one of the most frequently cited reasons for the
failure of improvement programmes (Bateman and Rich, 2003; Readman, 2007). These
resources are not only associated with financial assignments to the programme, but
there are also more practical aspects to be considered: access to production equipment,
human resources, time to dedicate to the programme, funding training programmes,
assigning task forces to facilitate the programme and budgeting for reward systems
(Prajogo and Sohal, 2004; Spackman, 2009).

3.7 Involvement of a task force in the improvement programme

To ensure that a CI programme is integrated throughout the entire organisation,
people who specialise in improvement areas or processes should be involved in the
improvement process. In that way, the improvement programme ensures that problem
solving and learning take place at all levels of the company (Bowen and Spear, 1999).
Front-line workers can improve their own jobs with the direction and assistance of
their supervisors, but under their personal initiative and knowledge (Bowen and Spear,
1999; Aoki, 2008). Company-wide employee involvement in the CI programme,
especially on the shop floor, is an indicator of worker commitment to the programme
(Prajogo and Sohal, 2004). It is also necessary that employees trust in management’s
commitment to the programme (Beer, 2003). Moreover, positive results derived from
the CI programme should reinforce the commitment of these people to continue
participating in it (Prajogo and Sohal, 2004).

3.8 Adequate training

To sustain and expand the programme throughout the organisation, managers need to
support employees with adequate skills and training in problem finding and solving
processes, such as the “seven quality tools” (Berger, 1997; He, 2009; Bessant and
Francis, 1999; Aoki, 2008). First, training builds confidence and helps to ease cultural
change (Spackman, 2009). Second, it establishes credibility and opens channels of
communication. Finally, it builds a sense of common purpose and experience which
is critical in overcoming difficult times throughout the process (Upton, 1996). There
should be a connection between the training provided by the company and the
improvement programme (He, 2009). This may include team development activities,
guidelines to support new roles and development of written and verbal communication
skills ( Jørgensen et al., 2003; Pun et al., 2001).

3.9 Communication of continuous programme results to the rest of the organisation

Communication is a factor not only essential for managing change, but also to continue
getting people involved in daily improvement activities. Moreover, a free flow of
information to managers allows them to find ideas and pushes them to encourage
CI (Irani et al., 2004). Communication must appear in different forms. Vertical
communication, for example, provides a channel to expand learning throughout the
organisation (Bateman and Rich, 2003; Beer, 2003). On the other hand, horizontal
TQM communication is needed to coordinate different people who carry out improvements,
24,2 between the users of machines, maintenance people and the rest of the team, for
example (Aoki, 2008).

3.10 Getting more people involved

CI is a people-oriented philosophy and it should involve everyone in the organisation
146 from top management to workers on the shop floor (Berger, 1997). Most people desire
opportunities for participation in matters that directly affect them; and this should be
used to get more people involved in the CI programme. An organisation with a high
level of involvement can make for an empowering culture creating a long-lasting CI
system (Pun et al., 2001).

3.11 Promote team working

One of the features of the success of a CI programme is the establishment of a
culture for improvement and high involvement (Kaye and Anderson, 1999).
Organisational characteristics that encourage CI include a tradition of working in
teams and delegating responsibility to teams (Irani et al., 2004; Delbridge et al., 2000).
Collaboration derived from team-working promotes business process optimisation, a
learning climate and communication skills (He, 2009; Jen-shou and Chin-yi, 2005).
Moreover, teams generate continuous learning as well as empowerment and personal
responsibility (Huq, 2005).

3.12 Provide a facilitator to support the programme

One important key element of CI systems is the facilitator to support improvement
programmes. The facilitator, who would typically form part of the daily team meeting
by utilising their communications board, needs to provide assistance through the
process of CI (Upton, 1996). Usually, this figure has been identified as a “champion” or
a “figurehead” because it plays an important role. The person who performs this role
must have a good personal understanding of the process improvement approach,
skills and the necessary experience to manage conflicts, in addition to personal drive
and commitment to this form of change intervention ( Jørgensen et al., 2003; Bateman
and Rich, 2003; Rapp and Eklund, 2002).

3.13 Selection of the appropriate areas for improvement

To assure the continuity of the improvement process, the identification of critical
processes at each moment is essential. Not all processes should be improved at the
same time. When a company proceeds with an improvement programme, only a few
key processes should be selected to work on, in accordance with available resources
(Lin et al., 2009). For a gradual and steady development of the CI programme it is
preferable to focus on few areas of improvement, such as those previously identified
(Upton, 1996; Jørgensen et al., 2006). Relevant aspects to consider in the selection of an
area to improve are the following: the achievement of results, the quality of the data
and the capacity of the development of new improvement opportunities (Eguren and
Errasti, 2007).

3.14 Adaptation to the environmental changes

The capacity of an organisation to adapt to environmental changes is important in
order to maintain the CI programme under diverse situations (Kaye and Anderson,
1999; Naranjo-Gil, 2009). Managers should promote an organisational culture that
helps people learn how to change. Participation, teamwork and empowerment of Sustainable
workers are elements which provide adaptation to change (Irani et al., 2004). In essence, improvement
individuals within a strong organisational culture know what is expected of them and
thus react positively when confronted with change (Irani et al., 2004). Moreover, many systems
companies can obtain tremendous improvement in performance as a result of the
reorganisation derived from the changes. Reorganisation should involve a policy
change with a clear and understandable message. However, there will inevitability be a 147
certain level of chaos. The strategy for change must address: an analysis of the causes
for change, what and how it must be improved and how the change will affect each
individual’s job (Upton, 1996). The development of a partnership with a trade union
and its representatives is also usually needed (Bateman and Rich, 2003).

3.15 Recognition or reward to participants

Another mechanism to foster CI includes the development of an appropriate reward
and recognition system (Bessant and Francis, 1999). In spite of some detractors, most
authors have also indicated the importance of the relationship between process
improvements and incentives, both at the company and at the individual level
(Bateman and Rich, 2003; Spackman, 2009; Caffyn, 1999; Chang and Sinclair, 2003).
Reward is connected with motivation, which can be measured by four workplace
indicators: engagement, satisfaction, commitment and the intention to quit.
A motivated workforce means a better corporate workforce. One of the drivers that
underline motivation is the drive to acquire, which can be easily satisfied by an
organisational rewards system (Nohria et al., 2008). Kaye and Anderson (1999)
recommends several types of tangible systems, such as gifts, monetary awards, letters
of praise, certificates, publications in a newsletter, etc. However, it was not clear which
was the most preferred approach.

4. Methodology and results

Although several authors have underlined the importance of presented factors for
the continuity of improvement programmes, their application, and moreover, their
measurement and evaluation is difficult. However, this study presents not only an
assessment of the importance of the factors for organisations, but also some
conclusions about the implementation and measurement of those factors for different
companies. To obtain a reliable evaluation of their importance, application and
measurement in a group of different companies, a semi-structured survey was
conducted at 36 organisations. Surveys set out to determine the assessment of each
factor, their implementation and associated indicators used to measure their level of
use. Through the conducted reviews, researchers were able to get relevant information
and details related to the use of those factors. This information has been helpful to
understand implications and ways in which organisations can apply and measure the
aforementioned factors.

4.1 Assessment of the importance of factors

To measure the importance of each factor, the companies scored them from 1 (not
important) to 10 (very important). As expected, every company considered the majority
of the factors to be very important. The results obtained from the assessment of
the companies are presented in Figure 1; in which the results are expressed with the
assessment average for each factor. As shown in that figure, managerial commitment
has been revealed to be the most important factor for the continuity of the
TQM 1. Managerial commitment
24,2 2. Key performance indicators
3. Programme objectives linked to strategic goals
4. Achievement and implementation of results
5. Appropriate methodology
6. Specific programme resources
148 7. Involvement of task force
8. Adequate training
9. Communication of the results
10. Getting more people involved
11. Promote teamworking
12. Facilitator to support the programme
Figure 1. 13. Appropriate areas for improvement
Average of factor 14. Adaptation to the environment
importance assessment 15. Participant recognition
(n ¼ 36)
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

improvement programme. However, other factors linked with the organisation have
also been determined to be relevant. It is worth mentioning that the following highly
scored factors are related with the way in which organisations present objectives and
implement the results of the programme (factors 2, 3 and 4). The use of an appropriate
methodology has also been highly valued by companies. On the other hand, participant
recognition or rewards was the lowest-scored factor. Moreover, some companies scored
this factor very low, while others scored it high. This result indicates that recognition is
a controversial factor for organisations. Overall, these factors have little influence on
the average scoring, which indicates that companies consider them to be important
factors for the continuity of their improvement programmes.

4.2 Application of the factors

To evaluate the application of the factors, factories were visited and questioned about
each of them. The interviewed companies had different ways of applying and
measuring the application of the factors. In order to compare the different situations,
the researchers established a minimum level of application and measurement for each
of the factors, in order to set up the criteria. The level of the application of each factor
was not scored, instead it was sought to establish whether the factor was applied in
some way within the company. Therefore, it could be known which companies had
applied the factors and which also had some types of indicators to measure, analyse
and take action to improve them. Despite the high scores given to the importance
of the factors, not all companies apply them, as shown in Figure 2. Factors related with
results, their indicators and methodology were the most applied by companies
(between 70 and 100 per cent of the companies had applied them), while participant
recognition (39 per cent) and involvement of workers (50 per cent) were the least
applied. Other factors, such as promotion of team working and communication of
results, are applied by fewer companies than the rest. All of those factors are related
with participation, which seems to be the most difficult element to promote in CI
For example, many companies promote participation through suggestion schemes,
but it is generally assumed that increasing worker participation involves a great effort,
1. Managerial commitment Sustainable
2. Key performance indicators improvement
3. Programme objectives linked to strategic goals systems
4. Achievement and implementation of results
5. Appropriate methodology
6. Specific programme resources 149
7. Involvement of task force
8. Adequate training
9. Communication of the results
10. Getting more people involved
11. Promote teamworking
12. Facilitator to support the programme
13. Appropriate areas for improvement
Figure 2.
14. Adaptation to the environment Percentage of companies
15. Participant recognition that apply each factor
(n ¼ 36)
0% 10% 20% 30% 40% 50% 60% 70% 80% 90% 100%

and therefore is not an objective of the CI programme. The use of team working in
improvement systems is only promoted by 53 per cent of companies through specific
actions. The actions used are generally associated with recognition (social events, such
as a dinner) or activities related to the improvement system (meetings, communication
of the results, etc.). Participant recognition, despite being a well-known mechanism to
sustain CI programmes, was the least valued factor. It was also the least applied,
having only been used by 39 per cent of companies. Unexpectedly, those companies
were not the ones who had given the highest values to that factor.
In conclusion, most interviewed companies apply factors in different ways.
However, companies are more focused on the application of the factors related with the
achievement and control of improvement objectives while the least implemented
factors are those which are related to worker recognition or involvement. Other factors
that are applied by all companies are managerial commitment, which is considered to
be the first and most important condition to support the improvement programme, and
the achievement and implementation of results, a factor that encourages the continuity
of the programme.

4.3 Measurement of the application of factors

Although indicators should be established to measure improvement system
effectiveness, most of the factors which have been explained before are difficult to
measure for companies, as is shown in Figure 3. However, most of the interviewed
companies have indicators associated with achievement and implementation of results
(92 per cent of companies). In general, companies use software applications to
manage such information. The measurement is usually obtained from the information
of the addressed actions or through audits or self-evaluation of the improvement
programme. That information is expressed and used in terms of indicators to measure
the effectiveness of the programme. However, only 58 per cent of the interviewed
firms associate them to strategic goals to measure their overall impact. The use of
TQM 1. Managerial commitment
24,2 2. Key performance indicators

3. Programme objectives linked to strategic goals

4. Achievement and implementation of results

5. Appropriate methodology
150 6. Specific programme resources

7. Involvement of task force

8. Adequate training

9. Communication of the results

10. Getting more people involved

11. Promote teamworking

12. Facilitator to support the programme

13. Appropriate areas for improvement

Figure 3.
Percentage of companies 14. Adaptation to the environment
that measure each factor 15. Participant recognition
(n ¼ 39)
0% 10% 20% 30% 40% 50% 60% 70% 80% 90% 100%

performance indicators to evaluate the performance of the improvement programme

is adopted by 53 per cent of the companies. Regarding the methodology applied by
companies for improvement programmes, many organisations do not use a
documented one and only 17 per cent of them evaluate the grade of application of
the used methodology. These findings once again support the idea that companies are
more focused on achieving results derived from CI programmes than from the
performance of the programme itself.
As previously explained, people who are involved in CI programmes need to be
trained. Despite this, only 53 per cent of companies have and regularly evaluate a
training programme in improvement techniques. Most of the interviewed companies
who use this type of training introduce sessions about improvement tools for new
workers. However, companies use indicators related to participation in the programme,
such as: the number of people involved in the programme (measured by 44 per cent of
companies) and the level of participation (measured in terms of number of projects per
involved person). However, the actions specifically oriented to increase the involvement
of people are evaluated by only 17 per cent of organisations. The role of the facilitator is
an important element for improvement programmes. Although this figure is adopted
by 70 per cent of the interviewed companies, only 11 per cent of them evaluate the
effectiveness of their work. This role is usually adopted by the person in charge of
quality management, or by the industrial manager, in most cases. Finally, two of the
factors are evaluated by only one of the interviewed companies: actions aimed to
promote team working and actions related with managerial commitment. Both factors
seem to be the most difficult to measure. This company measures the promotion of
teamwork through the number of projects related with team working or the evaluation
of the training of teamwork techniques and manager commitment through the number
of projects and meetings in which the manager is present.
5. Conclusions Sustainable
This study set out to determine the degree of application and evaluation of the factors improvement
for the sustainability of improvement programmes. The obtained results suggest
that interviewed organisations apply most of the presented factors, which reinforces systems
the importance of their application for the sustainability of improvement programmes.
Furthermore, the factors which are applied by most companies are those which are
related with the achievement of results in terms of company activity performance. 151
Other factors oriented to improve the CI system itself are only adopted by companies
heavily invested in the improvement programme or even with a developed
methodology. Another significant finding is that most companies are not interested
in getting more people involved in their programmes; even though they are aware
that this is necessary to sustain the CI programme in the long term. Actions taken to
increase the level of participation in improvement activities, training or even to
promote team working are the least implemented ones. It has also been established
that the objectives of the CI programme are not always aligned with organisational
strategic objectives. Complaints from clients are usually adopted as part of
improvement programme objectives. Regarding the measurement of the analysed
factors, the results confirm that the achievement and implementation of results is
mostly evaluated by companies. Other factors, especially those which are related
with involvement and resources, are adopted by the least amount of companies.
However, their level of application and evaluation does not have the same relevance for
all the factors. Some companies find it difficult to relate these factors with suitable
indicators to measure their application and performance. Even with this difficulty,
companies must be aware that CI needs to be managed as a process.
To conclude, this paper has confirmed the importance of all the presented factors to
sustain CI programmes (Bessant et al., 1994) and as a consequence, as it involves the
monitoring and evaluation of the improvement programme itself.
Future research should be done to help companies adopt, implement and measure
those factors, especially those related with the participation of people in programmes
and adoption of team working and recognition, as a way to promote sustainability of
continuous programmes.

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About the authors

Carmen Jaca is a Lecturer at TECNUN (University of Navarra). She studied Industrial
Engineering at the University of Navarra. She has worked in different industrial companies as
Quality Manager and her research activities are in continuous improvement and team working.
Carmen Jaca is the corresponding author and can be contacted at:
Elisabeth Viles is a mathematician. She earned her PhD in Physics from TECNUN
(University of Navarra) and is a Lecturer in Statistics at TECNUN. She has been actively
conducting and publishing research on the use of statistical tools for improving quality and
reliability and is a regular conference speaker in different postgraduate courses related to quality
management, Six Sigma implementation and Black Belts training.
TQM Ricardo Mateo, MBA – IESE and PhD in Management and Economics from the University of
Navarra, is an Industrial Engineer. His research is mainly focused on continuous improvement in
24,2 industrial and health organizations. He is Professor of Strategic Management and Business
Policy at the School of Economics and Business Administration of University of Navarra.
Javier Santos is the Head of the Department of Industrial Management Engineering at
TECNUN (University of Navarra). His research focuses on lean manufacturing, continuous
154 improvement and production planning and scheduling. He is Professor of Operation
Management at TECNUN and the main author of the book Improving Production with Lean
Thinking ( John Wiley & Sons, 2006).

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