What is Continuous Improvement

As a manager, one of the frameworks you should master is that of continuous improvement. This will allow you to build a culture of reflection and empowerment. It will also improve productivity and team capability. In this article, we’ll break down what it is and what the first steps are to get going.

Here’s the quick definition:

What is Continuous Improvement? Continuous improvement is a concept that is built around the Japanese principle of Kaizen, which means ‘change for the better’.

Continuous improvement focuses on analysing and improving processes every day, and using teams who work in the process, to make these improvements as part of their day-to-day activities. Over time, these small changes add up to huge improvements, identified and delivered by everyone in the business.

There’s a trick to getting continuous improvement right and making it a new mindset in your teams. Here’s how it all fits together. 

The Components of continuous Improvement

There are a number of elements that fit into the continuous improvement model. Its core elements focuses on:

  • Measuring the output of the process to see any gaps to plan – I.E. Where should we be right now, and are we there? This could be things like the number of parts produced so far, or orders received, or even sales calls made;
  • Observing the process to see what’s actually happening, and to identify improvement opportunities – This means to actively see what’s happening in real time, as the work is getting done. This helps us see what we know is happening, not what we think;
  • Improving the process, by trialling new ideas and seeing if they work. If so, they get locked in and become the new way of working.

This repetitive cycle, when embedded, forms the foundation of continuous improvement. In fact, when practiced every day, it should eventually be the default mode of looking at everything in business.

And if you do it regularly, you and your team will soon look at all problems in this 3 phased approach.

The result: Processes are more efficient; the teams are far more engaged and empowered to make their own improvements and decisions; people know how to improve processes and employees working together to share best practice ideas.

The Process Perspective

Continuous improvement is built around the process perspective. 

Much like an astrophysicist looks at the stars as literally an interconnecting network of galaxies and matter (called the Cosmic Web), an effective manager looks at problems and systems within an interconnected web of processes, spanning an entire business. These processes have an impact on other processes and systems.

Here, the process thinking manager asks, where is the process failing? What is actually causing that substandard performance or that error? What can we try right now, to see if we can improve that part of the process?

This takes people away from the blame game of “who did it?” To “where did the process fail and why?”

To a process thinking manager, they instantly see things as a process and then seek to identify where the weaknesses are in that said process. How do they do it? Well, they follow the 3 step model above… (measure, observe and improve).

People can then work together to improve their processes, without the fear of being punished for making mistakes. In fact, they should be encouraged to try new things and learn from each experience. 

So, how do we begin to change our mindset to a process perspective? We must first understand the process model.

The Process Model

A process consists of 3 key elements:

  • Inputs – These are all the things that must go into the process to enable it to work and the activities to run;

Examples are: People, materials, machines and equipment, information, skills, working environment, paperwork needed, settings on a machine, available time and so on.

  • Process steps – These are the actual sequential steps that get performed;
  • Outputs – This is the output from the process. Whatever you put in (inputs) and then convert (process steps), you’ll get an output.

Examples are: A quoting process provides a quote within an agreed time; a machine on certain settings and with the right material will produce components to a certain specification; a training course being delivered to a certain syllabus (input), will provide a certified course to its students.

Naturally, a process’ output is only as good as its inputs and actual process steps taken.

For instance, In a manufacturing business, if information entered on a job card is incomplete and sent to production, it would affect the quality and speed of turnaround in the production process – people will have to go back and ask many questions, which will increase lead time.

There’s also a greater chance of errors being made as a result.

The same is true for information being provided from a salesman to the operations team.

So too, if people are untrained in a process, you’ll expect a lower quality output.

It makes no sense then, to blame an operator for poor performance if their processes or inputs are poor.

A manager with a continuous improvement hat on would coach the team to fix their processes, first and foremost.

Process Waste

A key concept of improving processes is to identify and eliminate waste. In fact, continuous improvement has its origins in lean manufacturing. And lean came from Toyota in the 1970s.

Toyota epitomised these process wastes as:

  • Transportation – If information or product is continuously moved from place to place, then it can’t be worked on. The more movement, the less time people are actually working on it, and the longer the lead time incurred;
  • Inventory – Allowing work in between processes to build up, until you get to it sounds like a good idea, but in an efficient process, this is a big no-no. Large amounts of product or information to process in bulk, causes delays in lead time. Equally, the bigger the work in progress, the harder it is to see any defects and errors that may be lurking within;
  • Movement – Movement of people also slows down the process, too. If you’re searching for information, walking around to find the right equipment, information and tools to get things done, you’ll cause even longer lead time and delays than are needed;
  • Waiting – Waiting for a customer (internal or external customer) causes delays. So too, waiting for information, a machine to be fixed or anything else that prevents you from getting on with the tasks, causes additional increase in lead times;
  • Overprocessing – Excessive processing is also a waste. This means doing too much when you don’t actually have to do it in the first place. These tasks are often legacy actions, whereby if you ask why they are being done, you’ll get, “We’ve always done it this way.” Looking for and removing these over processing steps that don’t actually add any value is a great way of improving throughput;
  • Overstocking – Producing too much too soon is wasteful, aswell. If you produce more than what is needed, then it merely pushes other more urgent work back further, causing bigger delays and more unhappy customers;
  • Defects – You can’t add value twice, so if there are defects created in the process, more work, time, materials and money has to go into reworking or correcting mistakes. This adds to lead time, and impedes the customer experience. Defects can be in either mistakes or missed information in admin, or indeed defective manufactured parts;
  • Skills – Not empowering your team, not giving them the right training, as well as not listening to their problems, is a waste as well. The best teams are empowered and encouraged to identify where the waste is in their process and allowed to improve these processes themselves. They’re given the right skills to do the job that’s expected.

So, when processes fail, or things go wrong, you must first think ‘process’.

  • Are any inputs not ‘right-first-time’ or substandard?
  • How are the actual process steps being conducted? Where are the wasteful steps? 
  • What’s causing the output we see?

Observing the Process in Person

Continuous improvement professionals know the power of standing there, watching the work being done. They do this with the team and challenge what they see. They encourage team members to challenge things, so they can identify small incremental improvements each time.

When observing, questions to ask are:

  • How long does this step take to process?
  • How long should it take?
  • What’s happening here that is wasteful? Where are the 8 wastes?
  • What ideas do we have to improve this situation?

These are all great questions to ask with your team members.

It means that as a manager, you’re not there to be the person with the answers. You merely observe and discuss what you see with your team, asking them questions so they can identify what improvements to take, and what the next actionable improvement would be.

Continuous Improvement Cycles (PDCA)

Once you’ve observed the waste, it’s time to trial a few ideas. The framework of the continuous improvement cycle is to follow small incremental changes every day. 

The way it’s done is via the PDCA cycle. It’s PDCA, because it stands for:

  • Plan;
  • Do;
  • Check;
  • Act.

In other words, when we observe our process, we get to work identifying why it’s happening.

Plan: Once we’ve exposed the possible causes, we create an idea of what we could do to improve the situation.

Do: We test the idea by implementing it on a small scale – like one would do in a scientific experiment

Check: When it’s being implemented, we check to see if our idea is working or not

Act: We act on the results. If it worked, we lock it in and make it the new standard way of working. If it didn’t work, simply choose the next idea and go through the PDCA process again.

This PDCA loop is constant, and allows teams to focus on a small improvement every time. It’s the small daily improvements practiced by everyone that makes a big change to the work environment and processes over time.

How to Implement Continuous Improvement With Your Team

Work with them to identify where something went wrong, when it happened, what the impact was and what the actual problem is.

Step 1: Understand processes cause the Majority of Problems

Before you jump in and blame someone for making a mistake, remember, 9 times out of 10, poor processes are the cause of mistakes and any frustrations your employees have.

Step 2: Observe the Process

Resist the urge to hold a meeting in the office somewhere. Instead, stand there and watch the process with your team. Understand how the process is actually being performed. Look particularly where the error or problem occurred.

Encourage your team to take part. Be the coach, not the oracle. By this I mean, your job is not to have the answers. It’s more about asking your team what they see when the process is being worked on in front of them. What they think is causing the problem or gap to plan and how it can be overcome.

Typical coaching questions can be:

  1. What is the target we want to achieve here? 
  2. What is actually happening?
  3. What things are preventing us from achieving this target?
  4. What obstacle will you overcome and when can I see the result?

Remember, you’re not looking to make huge step changes. Simple and effective improvements suffice. For instance, in answer to the first question of “What is the target we want to achieve?” It could be something simple like, “to process a quote in under 1 hour,” or “To set up the next job on the machine within 10 minutes.” 

These are great observations which focuses the team to identify what to do next.

Step 3: Practice Walking Around and Coaching Every Day

Don’t leave this questioning technique to only when things go wrong. Practice checking in every day. Coach your team to measure their processes. Make the process visual, so you can quickly see how things are working within 30 seconds.

Then run through these 4 questions, ensuring your teams are implementing small daily improvements, regularly.

Step 4: Celebrate the Improvements

On a monthly basis, congratulate the team for all the improvements they have made. Try to link the improvements to a total time saving number if you can. For instance, “2 hours of time saved from total improvements this month.” If you can’t do that, you could reward the person with the most number of small improvements completed each month.

The rewards don’t have to be much: a bottle of wine, gift vouchers, free breakfast, a funny gift – it all works, as long as you reward the team’s efforts and recognise them.

Continuous improvement is a mindset shift that most managers fail to understand. By thinking ‘process’, you can educate and coach your team to make daily improvements, and banish the blame game culture once and for all.