Continuous Improvement: The Path to A Better Future
We all want the teams we influence and lead to be successful. How can we ensure those teams will achieve the results that will lead to success and a better future?
I suggest an important key is to embrace the philosophy of continuous improvement (CI), which encourages us to continually strive to get better at what we do, such as making never-ending improvements to our work processes. The roots of the CI philosophy can be traced to the pioneer of the Quality Movement, Dr. W. Edwards Deming, and the Japanese who refer to the philosophy as “Kaizen.” The contrast to traditional thinking can be illustrated as:
Old Thinking: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”
New Thinking: “Just because it isn’t broke doesn’t mean it can’t be improved”
Respected management expert Brian Tracy sums up the philosophy by encouraging, “Practice the philosophy of continuous improvement. Get a little better every single day.”
Benefits of Continuous Improvement Philosophy
Why bother with striving for CI? Studies have shown some of the benefits to include:
- Boosts productivity – improves processes and eliminates waste leading to increased efficiency.
- Improves quality of our products and services – leading to less re-work and more satisfied customers.
- Creates a competitive advantage – gives your team an edge over other competitors.
- Improves the culture – as your team experiences improvements and the resulting benefits, satisfaction, engagement, and morale will all increase. Employees will feel empowered to make a positive difference.
- Increases teamwork – encourages all employees to contribute ideas and work together to implement value-added improvements.
Key Principles Supporting Continuous Improvement
Here are some of the key principles underlying the CI philosophy, which I also refer to as a CI mindset:
- Make an intentional, long-term commitment. Management expert Peter Drucker stated, “Nothing good happens by accident.” To be successful at CI, we need to have a long-term view and commitment. CI should not be a mere management “flavor of the month,” but an enduring, never-ending quest to always strive to make things a little bit better. Deming in his classic 14 points emphasized the concept he called “constancy of purpose”— an unrelenting, unwavering focus on process improvements.
- Focus on “Proactive Fire Prevention” rather than “Reactive Fire Fighting.” Many managers and their teams are constantly distracted by creating and putting out a series of “fires” (i.e. being reactive fire fighters). Being caught in this reactive mode distracts from solving the root causes of the problems and causes people to work harder, rather than smarter. The CI approach is to intentionally work smart at proactively preventing fires (problems) in the first place. Related to this approach is the emphasis on preventive maintenance rather than corrective To illustrate this approach, think about why we do regular oil changes in our cars (i.e. preventive maintenance). The alternative if we don’t is that somewhere down the road (pun intended) we will face a major corrective maintenance repair bill.
- Ask for and be receptive to feedback. Asking for feedback and input is very important to the success of a CI philosophy. We need to encourage lots of communication and ideas to be shared, then be open and receptive to evaluating and acting on those that can help us improve.
- Work as a team. Here is a key truth: “We are better together.” If our goal is to improve together as a team, making sure we are working as a team is important. It’s also wise to expand our concept of team to include our work team, plus internal service provider support teams like IT and HR, and external key vendors and suppliers.
- Choose small manageable improvements. CI by definition is all about making ongoing small, incremental improvements. Consider the “1% rule,” which says to strive for modest 1% improvements at a time—and realize that many 1% improvements over time add up to significant long-term improvements.
- Measure progress and celebrate improvements. Peter Drucker taught that what gets measured gets improved. We need to track our key performance measures to ensure that targeted improvements are taking place. And when there are improvements, we need to celebrate the progress. Two key principles I teach: “Success breeds success” and “Celebrated small wins over time lead to big wins.”
Some Useful Tools Supporting CI
One useful tool that has been used by organizations for many years is the Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) cycle. There are four basic steps:
Plan: Identify an improvement and plan for change.
Do: Complete the activities to implement the change, which may be on a small scale or trial basis initially.
Check: Once implemented, check the results to endure they align with expectations.
Act: If the change was successful, implement on a wider basis and continually assess your results. If the change did not work, begin the cycle again.
Another useful set of tools involves benchmarking and best practices analysis. Benchmarking involves comparing our systems and processes with other teams that are high performing. Benchmarking can reveal where our operations are performing well, and also identify areas where we have the most room for improvements. Best practices analysis involves identifying the best practices used by the top performers of a given process. We then use a tool like PDCA to pursue our improvement initiatives to bring us in line with the best practices.
Sources of Potential CI Improvement Ideas
We need to be constantly looking for potential ideas to make our operations better and practice the CI philosophy. Here are some of the idea sources we should consider:
Front line employees: The people who do the work often have the best ideas on how to improve processes and make them more efficient and easier. Let's ask them on a regular basis for their ideas.
Benchmarking and Peer Comparisons: Developing good relationships with other teams and organizations that do similar work is extremely valuable. Plugging into trade associations can support our efforts to benchmark and learn the best practices of others.
Conferences: Many of the best ideas that I have learned and implemented came from participating in conference like National Postal Forum and MAILCOM. We can learn from the speakers, peers, and experts we meet at the conference, along with the trade floor vendors and suppliers.
Trade Periodicals: We can learn good ideas from business trade journals like In-plant Impressions. Trade journals feature articles and stories containing practical ideas that we can learn from, and also highlight leading edge vendors that may be helpful to our operations.
Consultants: Sometimes it is worth the investment to bring in a proven consultant to analyze our operations and suggest improvements. A good consultant can bring value-added suggestions that more than cover any fees.
A final closing quote to consider by Pat Riley, successful NBA coach and general manger: “Excellence is the gradual result of always striving to do better.” My best to you and your team as you improve your excellence by practicing the CI philosophy.
Wes Friesen is a proven leader and developer of high performing teams and has extensive experience in both the corporate and non-profit worlds. A former in-plant manager, he is also an award-winning university instructor and speaker, and is the president of Solomon Training and Development, which provides leadership, management and team building training. His book, Your Team Can Soar! contains 42 valuable lessons that will inspire you, and give you practical pointers to help you—and your team—soar to new heights of performance. Your Team Can Soar! can be ordered from Xulonpress.com/bookstore or wesfriesen.com. Wes can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.