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We have written this article to educate you on continuous improvement. The reason for this is that I believe, continuous improvement can often get a bad name. That is because, in many organizations, continuous improvement is deployed badly, incorrectly or by those who don’t truly know how to deploy it or have any shred of passion for it.
Indeed, in the many organizations with which I have worked, I have seen continuous improvement deployed badly or incorrectly time and time again. You have people delivering it that don’t have the right training or qualifications. You have managers that lead on it but don’t really have the passion for it. You have teams who have been sold the vision and purpose of it incorrectly, therefore they don’t know how and when to properly utilise their Continuous Improvement Team.
In this article, I want to run through what continuous improvement is, how it can be deployed, its benefits, indicators and different potential approaches. When deployed correctly, continuous improvement can generate some really fantastic results, repeated time and time again to great effect, setting your organization up for long-term sustainable success, today.
The fundamentals of continuous improvement
What is continuous improvement?
At a definition level, continuous improvement is the ongoing improvement of products, services and processes through incremental and breakthrough improvements. When it comes to this definition, notice the stress on the word ongoing. Continuous improvement is not a one-off activity, or at least it shouldn’t be. Continuous improvement is an activity that should be occurring yesterday, today and tomorrow. It is something that should be embedded into the culture and the daily activities of the staff, the managers and the leadership.
The aim of continuous improvement is to improve the state of something, then improve it again, and again. It is the continual effort to get something to be operating as effectively, efficiently and as productively as possible, removing waste, errors and bottlenecks, whilst increasing value and opportunities. How you achieve these things depends on a raft of criteria, such as your business needs, the resources at its disposal and the level of acceptance of change you have within the culture of your business.
It goes without saying. Those organizations with open, accepting cultures who embrace and celebrate change are the ones who will do significantly better in their continuous improvement journeys.
The purpose of continuous improvement
When it comes to understanding the purpose of continuous improvement, it is important to remember the desired outcome of any work done in this space. Every organization, team or project will have a different outcome in mind, based on their needs at that time. These needs can evolve, and that is why continuous improvement can be so effective. It is not done just one time and no more – it happens again and again and can evolve with the needs of the organization.
When seeking to embark on a continuous improvement initiative, it is really important you are clear from day 1 exactly what you want to outcome of your work to be – what is the purpose? There can be many purposes of continuous improvement, and they can cover the following:
Reduction of waste, improvement of quality, ensuring the achievement of SLAs and KPIs, reducing the cost of doing business, increasing financial savings to be banked for future investment, increasing time savings for future investment, upskilling of teams and departments, improving processes and delivering operational excellence throughout, improving team mindset and the culture of the team / wider organization, proactively and reactively reducing issues and errors, embedding innovation and competitiveness into the heart of the organization, plus many MANY more.
As you can see, the purpose, the reason and the motivating factor behind why you may want to deliver continuous improvement can vary greatly, and each project, process and approach can have different purposes. What matters here is – what suits the needs of the business, today.
The procurement department has, recently, been procuring services from unsuitable potential providers. They have been scheduling meetings, and demonstrations and discussing commercials way ahead of time.
This is leading to a big waste of time for the procurement department itself, as well as others within the business who are being called upon from an SME perspective to support in those meetings.
We are also seeing a delay in the procurement of new services and concerns raised across the business.
Increase in complaints from internal stakeholders, several hours a week now wasted for the procurement and related teams, and disaffected potential future suppliers (complaints about your organization wasting their time).
Upon investigating why this was happening, it became apparent there was no effective RFI process in place, there were no checks and balances in the procurement team (and often in the 3rd party) and a lack of knowledge of what was needed.
A continuous improvement initiative was launched. This saw the building of a new RFI process, upskilling the team and changing their SOPs. CI was also embedded by continually reviewing the approach and building robust control measures.
The purpose here was to use CI to build a new, more effective approach to procurement to proactively reduce issues.
The benefits of continuous improvement
Tied very much with the purpose of continuous improvement, it is also worth thinking about the benefits. When you are looking to pitch or sell your vision for continuous improvement to leaders and those who will have to give it sign-off, they will be looking for the benefits. What is the return on investment of any time spent doing this work or money spent delivering the solutions that come from this work? With that in mind, it is really important you get clear on the benefits of what you are doing early on, just as you need to do with the purpose. By doing so, you are far more likely to get buy-in and support from wider stakeholders.
When it comes to the benefits, this will largely depend on what it is you are trying to achieve, why and how. With that said, there are a range of benefits that can come from continuous improvement that can often be applied across a range of initiatives. The kinds of benefits can include the following:
Delivering a new culture, one that is stronger, more open, transparent and collaborative, reducing the cost of doing business, reducing the waste within your processes and operations, guaranteeing better quality of products and service year on year, shifting the work done to more value-adding in nature, ensuring the faster delivery of products and services to market, putting innovation at the heart of the organization’s strategy, reducing errors and defects, reducing risk to the business both today and in the future, making the organization more streamlined, agile and competitive, improving customer satisfaction and employee engagement, plus many MANY more.
As you can see, the benefits of successfully delivering continuous improvement are vast and are many. That is why, throughout this article, I will stress the importance of not just delivering continuous improvement, but delivering it correctly. Only then can such benefits be truly realised.
How NOT to deploy continuous improvement
Just as with delivering continuous improvement for positive benefits, and potentially experiencing that positive ripple effect across the organization, continuous improvement can be deployed incorrectly. Indeed, the continuous improvement being deployed incorrectly has become commonplace in a lot of organizations that don’t truly understand it, don’t have the right level of training amongst their team or have not set the right goals, challenges and metrics against continuous improvement team performance.
With that said, there are a number of key things you SHOULD NOT do when it comes to delivering continuous improvement. Here are 6 of them:
1. Delivering projects with no control measures.
Delivering new processes, changes, reforms, improvements or entire projects and not ending this work with a control phase can be fatal. Many individuals and organizations don’t fully grasp the importance of putting strong control measures in at the end of such work, to ensure the changes last the test of time. What often happens when such measures are not put in place, is all of that hard work unravels and creates more issues than were there to begin with.
2. No methodology.
If the managers in the continuous improvement team or the team members themselves are not fully skilled in this art, many will not know about the great array of methodologies out there, designed to help with the delivery of continuous improvement. I remember one time working with a team and I mentioned that they should probably take a Plan Do Check Act approach for their small project, and they had no clue what I was talking about. There were no qualified Lean Six Sigma belts present – nothing. Safe to say, this team was not producing the high-quality positive outputs they should have been.
3. No goals or targets.
Many organizations who don’t truly understand continuous improvement, often do not know how to set goals and targets for its successful completion. If you do not truly know the impact it can have, how it should be delivered and its potential, how can you adequately plan the outcomes of the work? With this, many leaders do not sign off on the implementation of continuous improvement in their companies because they simply do not understand (often because of the one pitching the work) the return on investment of this endeavour.
4. Rewriting the rules.
There are tried and tested methods and approaches in place that have worked for organizations of all sizes, types and in all industries – do not try and rewrite these. These methods can be tailored, they are flexible, and they can be combined with others depending on needs and expectations, but trying to rewrite the rules of this game simply will not work. Seeing first-hand individuals with no real knowledge of continuous improvement methodologies try to rewrite them, in their own image, was truly eye-opening. The impact of what was delivered was extremely negative, time-consuming and no good came from this.
5. Being too top-down.
You need to ensure you get buy-in for the approach across the board, not just at the leadership level. In my experience, those organizations that deliver top-down approaches to continuous improvement rarely succeed. This is because they don’t garner the support of those at the coalface of the work, they don’t truly understand the issues plaguing processes and they often don’t understand the impact the work they are imposing on others will have. This can lead to complaints about lack of transparency, lack of interest in resourcing issues and lack of engagement and involvement across the board.
6. Not anticipating the knock-on.
A big problem faced when people don’t deploy continuous improvement as they should is siloed working. This is where people change aspects of a process, often theirs, without considering the knock-on impact this could have on processes further down the line or, indeed, the wider business. If changing a process in a silo, you could impact a team further down the line that was unaware of this, sometimes to some big consequences (such as a CEO not getting their bonus kind of consequences, as I witnessed first-hand). With that in mind, continuous improvement should not be done in silo – you must anticipate the knock-on.
Examples of continuous improvement
When it comes to demonstrating continuous improvement, a whole article (or 10) could be written on that. There are so many examples, from across a range of industries based on a series of challenges being addressed. However, there are certain buckets which these improvements regularly fall into, and some could be seen as motivations to conduct continuous improvement in the first place. 5 general examples of continuous improvement could include:
With process improvement, you focus completely on analysing, reforming and improving a process, always with the aim of having a product or service delivered faster or with better quality. When it comes to delivering this approach through the continuous lens, there are a number of reasons to pursue this approach: Improved outputs, improved performance, increased capacity, increased capability, reduced time waste, reduced financial waste, removing handoffs and removing risk.
Improvement of teams:
Another focus of continuous improvement can be to improve teams, continually. Our people are what make up our organizations, so investing in them on a continuous basis makes perfect sense. The way in which you can do this from a continuous improvement standpoint does not always need to be expensive, indeed many options are very cost-effective. How do we improve our teams on a continuous basis? Ways include: Upskilling them in CI tools and approaches (minimal cost), embedding a continuous improvement mindset into the teams (minimal cost), keeping a live skills matrix document (no cost), filling gaps in your current team set-up (some potential costs) and funding formal qualifications (there is a cost here). By improving your teams continuously, you don’t only improve the skills on offer to move your organization forward, you increase employee happiness, engagement and retention – all great outcomes from a continuous improvement basis.
Improvement of outputs:
A focus of your continuous efforts could be the outputs of your processes. You can clearly state that you want a product to improve quality by X amount, or you want a specific service to be delivered 20% faster than it currently is. This helps focus the mind and the efforts of the continuous improvement approach, because you may not achieve those goals during the first iteration of the work you conduct, therefore you improve again and again to get there. With this approach, you can think about improving the way in which your outputs are delivered (process), focus on the issues plaguing your outputs and working backwards to address and fix them, understand what your customers want and give them that, increasing the volume of your outputs to meeting demands and improving overall quality.
Reduce time taken to do business:
One of the biggest reasons for a continuous improvement approach is time – saving time, reducing the time taken to complete an activity and reinvesting that time elsewhere. Time, like our people, is the most precious thing a business can hold, and saving it, growing it and investing it into the value-adding areas of the business is critical. When it comes to this approach, you can deliver continuous improvement to ensure: that it takes less time to deliver the agreed outputs, you can remove people/handoffs from the process, processes are as streamlined as possible, technology infuses seamlessly with the process and team, each step takes a little less time each time and the product gets to market quicker.
Reducing the cost of doing business:
As well as saving time, continuous improvement can be deployed to save money. This will often be completed on a long-term footing, with continuous improvements again and again in different parts of the business, process or team to save money incrementally. This approach can put your finances on a stable and sustainable footing and helps reduce risk vastly by avoiding any cliff-edge decisions to save big amounts of money today, but not thinking through the consequences of such decisions. With this approach, you can deliver continuous improvement to ensure: a lower cost of doing business, better contract negotiations (lower longer-term costs) less staff being required / less hiring, reduced use of contractors, better quality equipment (less costs to fix) and more money to reinvest back into staff and automation.
Additional examples of continuous improvement exist including building in control measures to an operation, the delivery of improvement projects on a rolling basis, improving the physical and digital working environment, reviewing and embedding SLAs & KPIs into the business, improving data availability and quality, embedding a cultural change or improving customer and employee satisfaction.
Continuous improvement is a powerful one, deployed to save time and money, improve quality and satisfaction, and shift mindsets and approaches. If you follow a continuous improvement process successfully, you’ll reap significant rewards for your business.