Continuous improvement is the never-ending cycle of revising, iterating, and implementing improvements to tasks and processes to build a better-performing business and organization. There is always a better way to execute the tasks!
You must stay on top of the latest trends and technologies to ensure your business remains competitive against current and new competitors as well as changing market conditions.
You must continuously search for ways to improve your processes, products, and services. This is why continuous improvement should be an essential focus for every business. This mindset is often used for operations but applies to virtually every aspect of your business.
Together with problem-solving, continuous improvement is one of the best areas to focus on when gathering employee ideas.
A handful of trainings, including Lean Six Sigma certifications and Lean Thinking, can help you shift your organization’s mindset to identify inefficiencies and opportunities for waste reduction.
Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “When you stop improving, you start dying.”
Although she said it in the context of individuals, this phrase applies to most businesses in today’s continuously changing and increasingly competitive environment.
We have witnessed an immense number of organizations that were successful at one point yet no longer exist.
Challenges with Continuous Improvement
Improving processes, products, and services can’t be an arbitrary, randomized process.
It requires intentional coordination with company strategy and collaboration with all employees and team members.
Improving too many things simultaneously or without coordination can lead to too much variability in your operations. Especially as changing the steps to one process might improve yet alter a step in another process.
An abrupt surge in changes within your organization’s operations can result in chaos and thus neutralize the benefits you expect to achieve as a result of your continuous improvement strategy.
Improving typically includes change. Having a change management strategy in your efforts can positively impact employee engagement and retention. No one wants to work in a chaotic environment!
Organizations looking to improve their operations, products, and services which are first-time adopters of this company-wide strategy, should consider hiring consultants to help them implement the appropriate methodologies for their continuous improvement efforts.
As we mentioned earlier: This is not a one-time activity. Sometimes organizations require outsiders to analyze their operations as third-party observers. Leaving out personal attachments to how things have always been done is vital to improving every day.
6 steps to continuous improvement
We asked our experts on the topic of high-performance organizations and continuous improvement what is the best way to integrate everyday improvements as part of their organization’s strategy.
They gave us six tips! Before sharing them, they stressed two foundational principles to consider. This will help you achieve the best results.
First was mindset. Mindset is the set of attitudes or beliefs that we hold. Understanding what mindset means is vital because our attitudes and beliefs affect everything we do, feel, think, and experience.
Our mindset influences our perceptions and how we move through the world. Becoming a high-performance organization requires more than strategy and process optimization.
It’s a way of thinking that needs to permeate a company’s organizational culture.
Second, and equally important, you need management buy-in and sponsorship. Managers and company leaders need to sponsor and model the behaviors and way of thinking necessary to become a high-performance organization.
One way to model an improvement mindset is to continuously ask one fundamental question: How can we do this better? / Can it be done better? In addition, ask yourself: How can I support you [your team members] in improving this process?
Asking this question can have transcendental results. Having employees throughout your organization respond to it is what we call: game-changing.
So, how do you go about becoming better every day?
1. Know Where you Stand Today
To begin any journey, you must first know where you are. In continuous improvement jargon, this is also known as the current state.
You cannot improve something you do not fully understand.
You cannot choose the right starting point for improvement without a clear grasp of all the processes affecting a specific opportunity for improvement.
Alternatively, you need to know the processes and activities affected by your proposed improvement. How will you impact operational activities, products, and services and the people that perform/provide them?
You need to start your current state assessment by identifying the strengths and weaknesses of your business.
If you don’t have any pressing or urgent needs, we suggest you choose a low-hanging fruit or an easy starting point.
Write down the first five things that come to mind when you think about things that are not working or that are unusually tedious. Can any of those be improved/fixed quickly?
Knowing your current state will help avoid pitfalls. For example, taking on too much at once or creating a plan that will take too long to execute and will thus make your team and leaders lose motivation.
2. Enlist Company Leadership as Continuous Improvement Coaches
Improvement efforts start with leadership. Leaders will lead improvement projects and coach and develop their teams to do the same.
Changing one part of a process might require adjustments and communication with teams and people interacting with the activities and processes you are improving.
In many cases, leaders will need to step in to provide the appropriate support, guidance, direction, and approvals to move forward. Make it easy for your team to move forward!
Making processes and tasks more efficient, reducing defects and variation, and increasing output capacity are important benefits to any organization. In the end, they increase an organization’s profitability.
It is also an opportunity to innovate and to develop human talent. Beyond the need for sponsors and knowledge, we suggest looking to leaders for people development.
3. Goal Setting – Clear and Realistic
With a good understanding of your current state and engaged leaders, you are ready to define your ideal future state.
A good way of visualizing this is a ladder. The higher we are on the ladder is typically correlated to better performance, right?
Therefore, let’s think of the top of the ladder as our ideal state and the steps in between as our process to get there.
You should consider two layers of goal setting in your business improvement strategy.
First, company goals- what are the most important areas for your business? Those are typically good starting points for improvement projects.
Then, you need to establish expected business improvement outcomes generated from idea generation efforts. Why are you doing this? What do you hope to achieve?
It’s important to define success regarding your customer and other stakeholders. What do they want? What benefits will they get from using your product or service, and how much value can you add as a result of this improvement?
Focusing on what your customer and stakeholders will value most will provide you with clear goals to achieve without missing the bottom-line results your business needs.
4. Train and Empower Your Team
It’s impossible to wait for results without developing internal tools and capabilities.
Company leadership is vital to empower and train their teams with the skills and knowledge they need to identify and implement ideas for continuous improvement.
This includes upskilling, training, and challenging teams to improve how tasks and processes are executed today.
You’ll need your team’s help to implement business improvements.
They will likely be much happier with the process if they can express their opinions and are given a role in its execution.
Furthermore, they can identify gaps or opportunities to increase the success and impact of the improvement while removing the roadblocks preventing the improvement project’s success.
That way, everyone has buy-in on the changes and feels ownership over implementing them.
Here’s how you can enlist your team’s help:
- Ask for their input on where improvements are needed
- Have weekly meetings where everyone comes prepared with ideas for business improvement
- Use digital tools to record observations and ideas for improvement
- Make sure everyone knows what’s expected from them when it comes to making those improvements
- Challenge them by asking thought-provoking questions
5. Choose an Improvement Methodology
Methodologies help you develop the infrastructure and define the steps to implement solutions and ideas.
They are an excellent resource for leaders to challenge the status quo.
There are plenty of methodologies and tools used by companies globally. These include Lean Six Sigma, Improvement Kata, PDCA Cycles, A3s, and DMAIC, to name a few.
Different methodologies provide flexibility to become better within your company’s unique context of needs, structure, industry, and goals.
6. Measure for Accountability and Buy-in
Measuring success is as important for your continuous improvement efforts as it is for pretty much any area of your business.
All improvement efforts should deliver your organization a clear value proposition and business advantage. The benefits should outweigh the costs of implementation.
Be mindful, though, to not create improvements that look great on paper but result in a harsh workplace environment.
Instead of getting better results and hitting your metrics, you might find yourself dealing with lower employee engagement, discontent, and even boycotts.
In my experience, setting goals and measuring business impact will help you justify your efforts to management and get buy-in from your team members and employees.
Having clear metrics for your ideal future state brings focus and objectivity to your performance conversations. How are we progressing toward achieving our ideal future state? What is the impact we are striving to achieve? How does it benefit individuals and the company?
Idea Generation for Continuous Improvement
Becoming a high-performance and continuous improvement organization requires adjustments to your workplace environment and culture.
Some individuals will be eager to provide and execute improvement ideas. In our experience, most will require motivation and support.
Remember: There is almost always a way to do things better.
Gathering employee insights and ideas will help you identify improvement opportunities.
Suppose employees are trained to identify areas for improvement, empowered to contribute to the company’s success by sharing observations and ideas and recognized for their contributions… That is what a company-wide effort to become a high-performing organization looks like.
The mindset to become better every day has been a key pillar in my professional success. It has positioned me as a key ally to help clients and teams on a diverse array of topics and geographical locations.
Leadership-led continuous improvement is great but relies heavily on a few individuals within your organization. In their absence, your efforts might crumble or stall.
Making this effort part of your company vision and culture, incorporating the right methodologies, and strategically adopting digital tools help promote the continuity, sustainability, and success of your improvement machine.
Have you identified a task, process, or another aspect of your organization that could perform better? Let us know how you went about it in the comment section below!