With the pace of change in today’s business climate, organizations that adopt Continuous Improvement (CI) can use it as a tool to stay ahead of the competition and keep employees engaged. According to Google, a common search phrase is “what is meant by continuous improvement in business”. Wikipedia defines the answer to this search as “A continual improvement process (abbreviated as CI), is an ongoing effort to improve products, services, or processes. Improvement in business strategy, business results, customer, employee and supplier relationships can be subject to continual improvement.” While this is a serviceable definition, the answer doesn’t really get to the heart of continuous improvement. Those organizations thinking of it only as a process often fail in their attempt at implementing it. Why? Because continuous improvement is more than a process. It is a mindset. Continuous improvement is the practice of always looking for opportunities for change—not just for the sake of change—but for the purpose of producing better outcomes for the entire organization and their customers. For business leaders, that mindset means sharing a customer-driven vision, challenge, or goal, and using ideas from anywhere in their organization to make things better to meet that challenge. For employees, that means feeling empowered to share these ideas and experiment to align their ideas.

Continuous Improvement (CI) Terminology

While it is important not to get hung up on terminology, it is helpful to have a general understanding of some of the key language used in continuous improvement.
Value Added – Any activity that increases the market form or function of the product or service. (These are things the customer is willing to pay for.)
Non-value added – Any activity that does not add market form or function or is not necessary. (These activities should be eliminated, simplified, reduced)
Continuous flow – movement of material and information through the process without stopping.

Continuous Improvement Can Apply to Every Organization

Continuous improvement can be applied to any organization that requires people to move material or information through steps. In other words—any organization. Not for profits, educational, governmental and financial institutions, healthcare organizations and manufacturers can all use continuous improvement for better results. For example:
  • A financial institution who can remove waste may be able to remove fees to become more competitive
  • An operating room team that goes through the exercise of ensuring everything is in the right place, at the right time will reduce delays, leading to reduced risk and better patient outcomes
  • A manufacturer using continuous improvement can identify where delays exist in their organization and cut time from production to increase productivity (hint: 60-70% of the time the delays aren’t on the manufacturing floor)
These are just a few examples of how continuous improvement can work for any organization, but the applications are endless. Any organization that needs to stay competitive, engage employees, leverage underutilized resources, meet customer challenges, better manage inventory or information and/or improve time to market can leverage a continuous improvement mindset.

Getting Started with Continuous Improvement—Do’s and Don’ts

There are two important points that organizations need to understand when implementing continuous improvement:
  • While it can—and often does—start as a program, to be most effective continuous improvement should become the culture within the organization.
  • The entire business needs to be involved in this culture from the top down.

Four Common Mistakes Organizations Make While Implementing Continuous Improvement

Organizations sometimes decide to try continuous improvement and give up too soon. Some of the common mistakes they make are:

  1. They just do it. Organizations that treat continuous improvement as a program (without senior leadership involvement) to fix one small area find that the fix isn’t sustainable. Without a common language across the organization and standard training people are just expected to “figure it out”.
  2. They take a cookie cutter approach. Organizations looking to do what their friends or competitors do will find that it doesn’t work for their company because every organization has different problems and goals.
  3. One person is designated to lead. Appointing one continuous improvement champion who’s trying to get the entire organization to change doesn’t work. Without champions throughout the organization, consistent training and a common language, continuous improvement efforts often fall flat.
  4. Leaders don’t understand their roles as coaches. In a CI culture, a leader’s responsibility is to coach their staff to develop everyone in the organization into a problem solver.

Four Factors for Continuous Improvement Success

While it can feel overwhelming to implement a program that never really ends, there are some core concepts that organizations can use in order to make continuous improvement effective and sustainable.
  1. Ensure there is alignment and vision from the top down. While metrics are important, continuous improvement is about more than measurement. Take the time to instill a common vision throughout the entire organization.
  2. Start small. As long as everyone is aligned to the vision, an organization can start small with a test. Find the early adopters who are willing to take the lead and change the culture over time.
  3. Don’t be afraid to fail. One of the hardest things for organizations to do is change their mindset to accept failure as a learning opportunity. If organizations start small, they can fail fast and fail cheap until they feel confident in their approach.
  4. Determine what to measure. Every organization has different goals and challenges so defining success is critical.

Organizations that instill a common vision throughout the company have a greater chance of successfully implementing continuous improvement.

The Benefits of Adopting a Continuous Improvement Approach

Clayton Taylor, Management Research Analyst, Pr. and Certified Six Sigma Master Black Belt at Arizona State University, shares “Implementing a culture of continuous improvement helps an organization by giving it the people, the processes and the tools needed to provide services in a way they were not capable of previously; and allows them to do so at a level that easily meets or exceeds the majority of their customers’ expectations.  It also gives the organization the capacity to serve a larger number of customers and expand their services beyond their existing capability.

Original Source: Vermont Manufacturing Extension Center
Written by Matt Cordes, Principal Writer, Writing Works Ltd.
Learn more about NWIRC’s Lean Together, working group for operational excellence.