Continuous improvement is a type of change that is focused on increasing the effectiveness and/or efficiency of an organization to fulfill its policy and objectives. It is not limited to quality initiatives. Improvement in business strategy, business results, customer, employee and supplier relationships can be subject to continuous improvement. Put simply, it means 'getting better all the time'.
What should be improved?
Continuous improvement should focus on enablers such as leadership, communication, resources, organization architecture, people and processes - in other words, everything in the organization, in all functions at all levels.
Continuous improvement should also lead to better results such as price, cost, productivity, time to market, delivery, responsiveness, profit and customer and employee satisfaction. There has been a tendency in quality improvement programs to focus on departmental improvement which does not improve business results overall. Departmental improvements may merely move the constraints or problem somewhere else in the process chain.
What continuous improvement is not
Improvement is not about using a set of tools and techniques. Improvement is not going through the motions of organizing improvement teams and training people. Improvement is a result, so it can only be claimed after there has been interventions that demonstrate a beneficial change in an organization’s performance.
Gradual, or breakthrough
There are three types of improvement. Continuous improvement is gradual never-ending change. Both types of improvements are what the Japanese call Kaizen. Breakthroughs are improvements but in one giant leap. The method of achievement is the same but breakthroughs tend to arise out of chance discoveries and could take years before being realized.
Why is continuous improvement important to an organization?
All managerial activity is either directed at control or improvement. Managers should be devoting their efforts at maintaining performance, preventing errors, or creating positive change, or improvement. If businesses stand still they will loose their competitive edge, so improvements must be made continuously to keep pace and stay in business.
When should continuous improvement be started?
Every system, program or project should have provision for an improvement cycle. Therefore when an objective has been achieved, work should commence on identifying better ways of doing it. The PDSA cycle (Plan Do Study Act).
How should continuous improvement be undertaken?
There is no improvement without measurement. An organization must establish current state performance before embarking on any improvement. If it does not, it will have no baseline from which to determine if its efforts have yielded any improvement.
A ten step sequence: (Expanded PDSA)
There are ten steps to undertaking continuous improvement:
Determine current performance
Establish a need to improve
Obtain commitment and define the improvement objective
Define and organize the diagnostic resources
Carry out research and analysis to discover the systemic root cause of current performance
Define and test a solution that will accomplish the improvement objective. If it fails repeat step one (PDSA)
Produce improvement plans which specify how and by whom the changes will be implemented
Identify and overcome any resistance to the change
Implement the change
Put in place controls to sustain new levels of performance and repeat step one (PDSA)
Where do the ideas come from?
Flow chart the current state. Identify gaps and obstacles. Create an ideal state flow chart. Go to the Gemba (front lines), and estable multidisciplinary teams to establish improvement projects.
Whose responsibility is it?
No one in the organization, from top to bottom, is exempt from the responsibility for improvement. It is a normal component of all employees' jobs to search out ways of improving performance. Furthermore, no one is expected to do this without help and support from others.
How does a company organize for improvement?
Led by a LEAN Sensei, most continuous improvement programs are executed by teams that either diagnose problems, search for solutions or implement changes. These teams may be within departments or cross-functional. However, there needs to be a steering group of managers which directs the teams towards their goal, and above all provides the environment for success.
What tools should be used?
The portfolio of tools used for continuous improvement should be those, which enable an organization to execute the ten steps above; all of which are part of Six Sigma methodology. These include:
Ishikawa fishbone diagram to examine cause and effect
Failure mode and effects analysis to predict failure and prevent its occurrence
Pareto analysis to identify the few influences on a situation which have the biggest impact
Force field diagram to display the forces for and against change
Dashboarding results to demonstrate whether improvements are being achieved
Clearly define SIPOC (Suppliers, Inputs, Processes, Outputs, Customers)
Changing the culture
Continuous improvement is far more than a set of techniques. For many organizations, it involves a radical change in the attitudes of executive leadership. Without executive leadership's ability, or willingness to recognize the need for a "Culuture of Continuous Improvement," then the buisness will stall and then fail. The defense of the status quo, and resistance to innovation, cannot be treated as normal management behavior. A fear of reprisals for reporting problems has to be replaced by congratulating people for identifying an opportunity to improve. Hoarding of good ideas within departmental walls must be a thing of the past as people share their knowledge and experience in the search for greater collective success.
The importance of commitment
Continuous improvement is about the entire organization and everything it does. It must be embedded in the Mission, Vison, and Values. It has to be a prime concern of executive leadership and its success depends upon commitment from the top. The commitment must also be highly visible. It is not enough to have a quality policy signed by the chief executive. If executive management does not demonstrate its commitment by doing what it says it will do it cannot expect others to be committed to the policy. Executive leaders must routinely visit and communicate with the Gemba.
The encouragement of people who have initiated improvements, however small, is an important component. This can be done in many ways, from displays on special improvement notice boards to the awarding of prizes. This is an area in which the culture and style of the organization has to be considered. The sudden introduction of a show-business style into a staid environment may lead to cynicism rather than effective promotion of improvement. Rewards may, but need not, have a financial component.
Dealing with failure
It is very common to find that about 12 to 18 months into a continuous improvement program, it is felt that it is not delivering what was expected. This is just the time to redouble efforts. It is a long-term haul to change behavior, therefore persistence and extra imaginative effort is the key. Never give up. Never stop improving!