The term Continuous Improvement is often considered as one of those things that businesses should do – much like being customer-centric. However, many businesses struggle to really make it part of their DNA and leverage the advantages that it can bring.
Continuous Improvement is both a mindset and a methodology for bringing ongoing improvements to products and services through a process of constant reviews, evaluations, and change.
The reasons why you may implement a Continuous Improvement Process and associated methods and procedures within your organisation does overlap with customer-centricity, given that the purpose for implementing improvements is to enhance the product and service delivery that your provide to your customers / clients. Establishing a process for improvement is a part of overall business process management.
There are plenty of (often heated) discussions around “continual” improvement versus “continuous” improvement. There are almost as many arguments for one over the other as there are various sources that advocate business improvement methodologies. Ultimately, the focus should be on the improvements themselves and ensuring that an effective process is implemented for managing them. For the purposes of this article, take it as read that these terms may be used interchangeably.
Continuous improvement models are fundamental to the methodologies of Lean, Six Sigma, DMAIC, to name a few. These all have their origins within manufacturing. It is also an underlying tenet of the ISO management system standards, eg. ISO 9001 Quality Management Standard, etc.
Since service industries and service jobs rapidly overtook manufacturing industries in the late 20th century, methodologies and management standards have also focused on service environments. This is reflected in the references that are now made to both products and services within various management system standards. In reality, businesses whose primary role is to produce products, still requires services to a certain degree, if for no other purpose than to enable product distribution.
Organisations rely on their internal processes to deliver products and services to customers. Ideally, these business processes are controlled and measured in ways that are appropriate to the activities that you undertake. The purpose of such controls is twofold:
To consider that businesses remain unchanged over time is naïve. Businesses undergo internal changes, through strategic decisions and changes in resources. In addition, businesses also have external changes imposed on them such as changes in market segments, regulatory changes, and supplier changes, to name a few.
Improvements are often identified by those employees who are actively undertaking given business processes. It is their initiative and efforts in identifying opportunities and improvements over time that that provide the biggest opportunity for change. This bottom-up improvement approach is particularly effective when the employees have the authority and a sense of ownership of the processes in which they are involved. This employee engagement, passed down from top management, will depend upon company culture, but is essential for the success of a continuous improvement strategy.
When identified, improvements need to be communicated to all stakeholders, and managed, through an appropriate mechanism. (Refer "Continuous Improvement Tools", below.)
To achieve improvement, we need some point of reference to know what it is that we are improving. Often referred to as a benchmark, this can take many forms. However, it is an integral element when considering continuous improvement. For example, if you accept that the current status is “normal”, how will you measure the impact of any changes you may implement? What is a suitable measure of that change?
It is important to recognise that managing continuous improvement is not the same as identifying and fixing errors, or even handling individual customer complaints. If errors are identified as part of normal checking, and prior to the errors impacting on a customer, then fixing those errors is just part of the standard process itself. If a customer does complain about the products or services that they have received, then there will be a process of customer satisfaction that should be followed, and that may feed into the continuous improvement process.
Identifying and correcting errors as part of a given activity, and managing customer feedback, are good examples of potential inputs to continuous improvement. But fixing a single instance of either of these is not continuous improvement.
The difference is when multiple instances of a given issue or concern point to a trend that needs to be corrected, or if a single issue is significant enough to be of greater concern. These are the issues that should be identified as opportunities for improvement and initiate the continuous improvement process that prevents the recurrence of the issue.
In addition, there is always the possibility of taking a proactive approach and identifying instances when an improvement that has been implemented in one area of the business, may also provide advantages in another area.
To be effective, Continuous Improvement itself should be treated as a business process. Like all processes, it comprises of several stages:
Any process is not really formalised, or therefore implemented, until it is defined, communicated, and agreed. For this to be done effectively, it needs to be documented in some way. This applies equally to the process of Continuous Improvement. The way in which the continuous improvement process is documented will vary depending on who is responsible to oversee the process, who actually completes it, and what is most appropriate for your business. The important point is that it is documented in some form and not just verbally agreed. It should also be documented in sufficient detail to minimise various interpretations, particularly when multiple persons may need to follow it.
For any process to be effective, relevant records need to be captured using a mechanism or tool that is appropriate for your business. For a process of continuous improvement this mechanism is typically a physical or digital form, the contents of which is then collated into a single register or database where it can be managed by relevant staff, teams, departments, etc, and overseen by relevant managers and leaders. Where it is appropriate, process improvement teams may be established to manage improvement projects, identify barriers to implementation, and coordinate improvement efforts across departments.
A popular approach for managing improvements is through recording:
This structured approach is founded in the PDCA Cycle
(Plan, Do, Check, Act Cycle).
The benefits of capturing and collating relevant data associated with all process improvement initiatives, includes allowing strategic decisions (eg. regarding opportunity cost associated with resourcing) to be based on statistical analysis of actual data rather than a purely emotive decision. These may include changes to strategies or objectives. Documenting these allows traceability of such decisions. This can be particularly important where some performance may be impacted.
Where improvements result in changes to procedures, it is essential that relevant documentation, process maps, etc, are included as part of the continuous improvement process and change management. Where necessary, changes may need to be communicated to staff through team training. Again, these decisions need to be made consciously and recorded appropriately as part of the ongoing effort of improvement.
These records may be captured within a single table or spreadsheet, or equally within a customised database or continuous improvement software platform.
The level of details in these records and the extent to which these tools add value to the continual improvement process, and even the tools deployed for managing continuous improvement processes, is often reflective of the maturity of the culture of improvement that is present within the organisation.
Importantly, it is the consistency of the use of these tools that will ultimately determine whether or not continuous process improvement is effective.
Once the tools are created and the continuous improvement process documented, then staff and teams need to be informed and trained in their use. This should be followed up by checking and reinforcing that appropriate opportunities for continuous improvement are identified, recorded, and managed. Without this follow-up and reinforcement, the process cannot be considered to be implemented or effective.
Businesses are comprised of a series of activities and processes that combine to:
Combined they form the fabric of the business that is the business management system.
An established, implemented, systematic approach to the Continuous Improvement Process drives changes that lead to improvements within the overall management system and the company itself. Given that customers are the reason why organisations exist, improvements should lead to improved experiences for your customers.
While some improvements are driven by your internal team, others may be driven by factors external to your company. In each case, they should be acknowledged for what they are and managed through the same process.
Ultimately, having a defined continuous improvement process established and implemented, is essential for your company to effectively manage improvements in a structured way that aligns with your adopted continuous improvement model. This also ensures that the members of your team understand that their efforts and ideas for improvement will be appreciated and effectively managed.