Continuous Improvement (CI) is the quality philosophy that processes can always be improved.
It also refers to the efforts of a company or team to improve its operations, services or products or reduce its costs. Examples abound. Call centres reduce the average time it takes them to answer inbound requests for help. Airlines look to eliminate baggage loss. Hospitals reduce avoidable errors in surgeries.
Software companies reduce defects in their codes. Organisations go further today and apply the tenets of CI in the ways they build capability, retain talent, understand their markets, align themselves with their clients’ businesses and manage programmes and projects with virtual teams. Exceptional companies like GE have made CI the cornerstone of their culture. On a personal level, managers look at how they can be more effective in their work. Continuous improvement may be achieved in small, incremental steps as well as by ‘major breakthroughs’.
The field of CI gained prominence in the 1950s in the Japanese manufacturing industry through the pioneering efforts of quality gurus like W. Edwards Deming, the author of the now ubiquitous PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) Cycle. Kaizen (meaning ‘improvement’ in Japanese), Lean Manufacturing (which focuses on eliminating wasteful resources) and Six Sigma (started by Motorola in 1986 to eliminate defects, this term refers to 3.4 defects per million inspection opportunities) have all been derived from the fundamentals of CI.
As a manager and leader, you will want to implement CI in your organisation to achieve lower costs, improve quality or to meet the contractual requirements of productivity improvement from demanding clients. The following tips can point you in the right direction:
Identify the right problem(s)
The first step is to identify areas of improvement. Surveys of your customers, end-users, front-line managers, and even competitors help enormously in knowing pain points.
Asking the right questions will align your efforts with company strategy and avoid wasted efforts – there is no point in improving operations in a line of business your company is planning to exit soon.
Beware of ‘vanity’ initiatives; they will receive neither employee buy-in nor company resources, both crucial for CI success. Care should be taken to avoid selecting inconsequential areas, e.g. improving a complex data collection process if the resulting reports are not used by any one. CI is sometimes wrongly seen only as a way to make small improvements by tinkering with existing processes - don’t be afraid to tackle big problems.
Understand the problem well
Once the problem has been identified, documenting metrics of the ‘as is’ state is essential. This will help you later establish improvements unambiguously. Develop a healthy scepticism towards the data you are given. Ask yourself if the data is reliable and recent and if the data collection process was unbiased and thorough.
Where the data is large, tools such as Run Charts, Histograms, Scatter Diagrams and 5-Whys can be used to identify and understand problems. Pareto Analysis can point to root causes with the highest impact.
Empower, provide support and manage performance
Get the right persons to work on the initiatives and involve them in developing solutions. Ensure that they have a clear understanding of the expected business benefits. Show your commitment by rolling up your sleeves and getting involved. You may have to persuade colleagues across functions to support your team’s efforts by emphasising business impact. Establish targets, metrics and systems that capture and report progress. Attend reviews and be prepared to step in when the initiative appears to be getting off track.
A CI initiative is essentially an exercise in leading change. Changes may be needed in the way employees work, in the tools and systems they use and the stakeholders they work with. In some cases, even reporting structures may shift. Despite all its benefits, employees usually resist change. In such cases, nothing will motivate slow adapters more than meaningful answers to the question, “What’s in it for me?” and visible progress. Socialise the initiative’s progress and related benefits to your team and beyond. Tangible and early results accompanied by celebrations of significant milestones will increase enthusiasm and more people in the organisation will want to participate.
Understand and overcome barriers to CI
CI can succeed when the organisation’s culture supports it. Low trust, poor cooperation and communication between departments, and a culture of ‘passing the buck’ can all impede the progress of CI. Frequent and open conversations can help in building a positive environment.
Can you build a culture of improvement in your organisation?
Since today’s solutions and processes are at best temporary, learning to embrace change is a desirable attitude in your employees. Building a culture of improvement will ensure that your company stays relevant and alive to what is happening in the world beyond a single client. Designating CI as a programme or project within your company may send the unfortunate message that it is merely ‘a flavour of the month’. Aristotle wrote, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
Without a conscious focus on CI and adequate reinforcement, there is a good chance that people will gradually revert to old habits.
Your leadership is critical if you wish to see sustained changes in employee behaviour and reap the real benefits of continuous improvement.