Continuous improvement is an ongoing, long-term approach to improving processes, products and services.
What is the Aim of Continuous Improvement?
Generally speaking, continuous improvement aims to:
- Increase Efficiency
- Increase Quality
- Reduce Costs
Organisations that implement continuous improvement achieve this by making small, gradual improvements over time.
As the majority of changes are small, there is often less resistance to change, which is ideal for improvement professionals who wish to:
- See results fairly quickly
- Negate resistance to the change initiative
- Create a more agile improvement project
- Get senior management on board with a results led argument for change
- Create a culture of improvement in the business
5 Crucial Aspects of an Improvement Plan
1. Improvement is Based on Small Changes - that are able to be implemented immediately
2. Input From the Entire Workforce is Necessary - (employees performing the process need to be involved in change decisions) - Like Panasonic founder, Konosuke Matsushita once said, "continued existence depends on the mobilisation of every ounce of intelligence"
3. Employees Must be Allowed to Take Ownership of Improvement Decisions - and will be more invested in the changes that they came up with in the first place
4. Communication Regarding the Change is Crucial to Ongoing Success - this is harder with bigger organisations, which is why having some type of continuous improvement software is important
5. The Improvement Must be Analysed - to see whether it really is effective (another reason why software is necessary)
3 Continuous Improvement Tools That are Easy to Use and Understand
DMAIC is a methodology made up of 5 phases: Define, Measure, Analyse, Improve and Control.
These 5 phases ensure that any improvement project is able to be analysed with data-driven evidence and repeated.
- Define - Identify the improvement opportunity
- Measure - Capture the process data for documentation
- Analyse - Find the root causes of the process problem (Focus on causes, not symptoms)
- Improve - Determine the steps that should be taken to improve the process
- Control - Monitor any change implementation to see if there has been improvement
The 5 Whys
The 5 Whys were developed to get to the root cause of a problem; not just identify a problem's symptoms.
These questions are important for exposing flawed processes within an organisation (The 5 Whys also partner well with DMAIC)
The number of Whys can vary but 5 is usually the right number to get to the root of the problem.
Here is an example...
The customer is unhappy
Why is the customer unhappy?
The customer is unhappy because no one responded to her support request
Why didn’t anyone respond to her support request?
No one responded to her support request because she posted it on Twitter
Why didn’t anyone respond to her tweet?
No one responded to her tweet because Alice is on vacation
Why does Alice’s vacation mean no one responded to the tweet?
Because Alice is the only one who responds to tweets and she doesn’t have a backup
Why doesn’t Alice have a backup?
Because we never thought about it before
Value Stream Mapping
Value Stream Mapping is the process of visualising the product pipeline as a series of process connections and measuring the value that those steps brings to the customer.
Value stream maps are used to visualise and identify delays, restraints and excessive inventory within processes. There are three groups within the value stream...
- Value Adding – a customer is willing to accept this step as an acceptable cost to them
- Non-value Adding – the customer feels it unfair to assign these costs to them
- Necessary Non-value Adding – costs to the customer are necessary but the customer may still feel unhappy to pay
The First Steps Toward Continuous Business Improvement
Know What Your Business Does
Before you even begin to think about how to change, you really need to understand exactly what your business does, and how it does it. Without this knowledge, your transformation project may fail. It is difficult to improve something if you are not actually aware of:
- What is working already
- What really isn’t working
- What needs to be changed
How Can We Understand What We Do?
From my experience, the best way to really understand what your business does, is to map all of your processes and present them in the form of a process map.
In its simplest form, a process map is a visual representation of the steps your business takes to transform its inputs into outputs. Here’s a great example:
Take a look at this article for a full process mapping checklist which lays out how to make a process map from start to finish.
Once an organisation has mapped out all of its end-to-end processes, it becomes much easier to see where improvements can be made. This is a time consuming activity, but well worth the effort.
Organise Your Process Maps
By the time you have arrived at this stage, it is likely that you will have hundreds of process maps, so identifying a software system that can store those documents will be necessary.
However, it isn’t enough to just upload all your maps and then leave them unsorted for your employees to wade through. A great BPM system needs to be:
- Searchable – so that it is easy to find what you are looking for with even the simplest of search terms.
- User-friendly – you need to make sure that the people who need to use your Process Library will actually want to use it.
- Reviewed and Updated Regularly – your Process Management System will always need to be kept up-to-date with the latest information so that it remains accurate, consistent and reliable.
Continuous Improvement Examples in the Workplace
Over the years, Triaster has worked with a whole range of organisations that have successfully implemented continuous improvement.
I personally feel that the best way to learn how to implement improvement in any business is to see how others have done it successfully.