Continuous Improvement (CI)

When organizations do the same thing, year after year, don’t adapt to changes in the market, or fail to adopt new technologies, they will eventually be succeeded by smarter competitors. Examples include Blockbuster, Sears, Mapquest and Nortel.

Continuous Improvement, or CI, is a great concept to improve business processes, every day, bit by bit. When implemented right, CI becomes a culture, a way of thinking throughout the organization. For me personally, CI is also a way to justify my tendency to be lazy: “hey, if I can do something with less effort and with the same or better result, why not do it the easy way?”

“Lean” or “Kaizen”, both more or less synonyms for Continuous Improvement, was originally developed in the manufacturing industry and made famous by the Toyota Production System.

Over the years, numerous concepts and tools, many with fancy (often Japanese) names were added to the “Lean Toolbox”, such as:

  • Value Stream Mapping (charting a process to identify and eliminate “waste”)
  • Muda (waste, or anything a customer does not want to pay for)
  • Non-Conformance Report (describing a deviation, its root cause & corrective action
  • Kanban (to reduce inventory)
  • PDCA (Plan Do Check Act, a way to implement improvements)
  • 5S (organize your workplace)
  • SMART Goals (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound)
  • KPI (Key Performance Indicators – visualizing your performance).

Although originating in manufacturing, the above tools can be successfully used in any other type of business and organization.

Implementing a Continuous Improvement culture and any of the available tools will not work if basic conditions for successful implementation have not been met. Some of these conditions include:

  • Lacking support from senior management: if the boss doesn’t believe CI is a good idea, then just don’t bother.
  • Lacking Project Management for CI implementation: no champion assigned, champion is not sufficiently experienced, or champion has too little authority.
  • Insufficient engagement with the work-floor on the benefits of CI: people will wonder “what’s in it for me?” (and that, by the way, is a really good question!).
  • Stubborn resistance from within the organization: “we’ve always done it this way, why change?” (ties in with the previous bullet).
  • Failure to bring in external expertise for specific improvement projects.
  • Management uses improved efficiencies to lay-off people (this is an absolute no-no: CI is about improving quality and boosting productivity and can NEVER lead to lay-offs!).

When working with my clients, CI is an integral part of executing the client’s Transformation Plan: whenever I see an opportunity to tackle a specific problem, I will select one of the tools in my CI Toolbox, customize it as-needed and then introduce this to the management team.

In my next article I will talk about a re-active but incredibly effective way to improve your processes, one error at a time.

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