The consistent buzz about continuous improvement has been present for more than three decades by now—to the point where it is in danger of becoming a fading background hum. That presents a real danger for enterprises seeking to attain, and retain, a competitive edge in their respective industries. We need to understand what successful continuous process improvement looks like. Why?
1 in 3 improvements has a financial impact. 13% of improvements save money. 23% of improvements save time. KaiNexus
Point to any industry in which the most successful companies have remained static—incorporating no ongoing process or product improvements. It can’t be done. In the global marketplace where outsourcing, partnerships, technical solutions, and flexibility to pivot rule, enterprises thrive only when they adapt, innovate, and grow. Note, too, that increasingly savvy customers demand continuous improvement in exchange for their brand loyalty.
What is successful continuous process improvement (CI)?
First, a look at what continuous improvement (CI) is not. CI is not an add-on to a process any more than is turning a screw to the right to tighten it, or to the left to loosen it. CI is not letting each department or team go off on its own to solve a piece of a problem in a vacuum. Nor is it “a change”—although beginning to implement it may be one.
Now a look at what continuous improvement is.
Simply put, continuous process improvement is a systematic approach to an ongoing review of workflows and outcomes to identify ways to improve them both. The approach was schematized as the Deming Wheel or Deming Cycle by Dr. W. Edwards Deming who credits his mentor, Walter Shewhart of the Bell Laboratories, with the idea.
As described by the W. Edwards Deming Institute, Deming’s cycle contains four stages: PLAN, DO, STUDY, and ACT:
- Plan involves identifying a goal or purpose, formulating a theory, defining success metrics, and putting a plan into action.
- Do involves implementing the plan.
- Study involves measuring and monitoring outcomes to test the validity of the plan for progress and success, or problems and areas to improve.
- Act integrates the learning generated by the entire process, which can be used to adjust the goal, change methods, or even reformulate a theory altogether.
The four steps are repeated over and over as part of a continuous cycle.
Ralph Keller sets out the overarching idea well in this issue of Industry Week:
“The key to differentiating your company is that your competitors do not design products, process orders through customer service, manufacture them in your plants or even sell and distribute them exactly like you do, and that’s where you can create a uniqueness that could yield a competitive advantage. It also is where your continuous-improvement (CI) projects are concentrated.”
What aspects of my enterprise are affected?
Good question. The short answer is, it depends.
Consultant Brad Power in the Harvard Business Review suggests that it is best to cherry-pick your optimal use of continuous improvement:
“Startups don’t need process improvement; everyone in the startup has to be obsessed with getting their new product or service to market, even if it’s sloppy. Companies with blockbuster products such as a patented drug or a breakthrough smartphone can be grossly inefficient in production, delivery, and service and still be successful. Executives at companies like Google, Apple, and Nike… don’t need to focus on excellence in every process; the process they need to focus on to achieve or maintain industry leadership is product development.”
Power adds that where you choose to emphasize continuous improvement may change over time to better align with shifts in your business objectives, your industry, and the global economy. IBM has remained competitive for decades doing exactly that.
The secrets to successful continuous process improvement
The key secret to successful continuous process improvement is its absorption into the corporate culture and dynamics of your enterprise. For that to happen, the C-suite team—not just the VP of QA—don the role of cheerleaders-in-chief and ensure that their workforce, down to the last person, is on board.
- This goes beyond the notion that everyone is on the same page; rather, everyone writes the CI book, and then everyone works on editing it, as well.
- Tallyfy’s post – about crowdsourcing ideas for process improvement contains tips on the successful integration of continuous process improvement into your workflows in ways that eliminate resistance to “change” and instead, engage your workforce in identifying efficiencies.
The second secret is finding the right balance between a focus on CI and the need for intuitive explorations of new ideas that may lead to true breakthroughs in processes, products, and services. Consultant and author Ron Ashkenas describes the need for and benefits of this type of balance:
“Question whether processes should be improved, eliminated, or disrupted. … For example, a six sigma team in one global consumer products firm spent a great deal of time streamlining information flows between headquarters and the field sales force, but didn’t question how the information was ultimately used. Once they did, they were able to eliminate much of the data and free up thousands of hours that were redeployed to customer-facing activities.”
Indeed, a cycle of breakthrough thinking followed by continuous process improvement (and repeat) is the best chance your company has to achieve and maintain a global competitive edge. It’s an idea for which consultant Becky Morgan offers case after case examples.
Benefits of continuous process improvement
Benefits will begin to accrue once continuous improvement is woven into the fabric of every work process and viewed as “the way we work” rather than as a separate, added task to be performed.
Initially, internal efficiencies may emerge that simplify a process or assist a customer. Efficiencies in supply chain requests or communications, for instance, may shorten time-to customer deadlines and even offer budget savings. Further efficiencies may be found in looking at workflows and outcomes with outsourcing partners. And benefits don’t stop there.
We all know what continuous process improvement has achieved for the U.S. auto industry. It is important to point out, then, that benefits accrue regardless of the industry. Take, for instance, the financial sector. U.S. Bancorp’s paper on the “Benefits of Continuous Improvement Initiatives” lists these “proven benefits”:
- Increased operational efficiency and productivity.
- Better documentation and elimination of redundancy.
- Greater quality awareness.
- Enhanced internal and external communication.
- Improved audit results.
- Faster and better decision making.
- Greater data reliability.
- Increased risk management.
Continual process refinement not only will likely to lead to better products and services, it also will strengthen customer relationships and loyalty to your brand.
Another benefit—a more confident and engaged workforce—is likely to boost products, services, and customer satisfaction as well.
- Once the word gets around that your enterprise engages in continual review and tweaking of your processes and products, attracting and retaining the best and brightest workforce becomes easier.
Finally, you may have heard the expression, Don’t look back; someone may be gaining on you.” With a company-wide reputation for relying on continuous improvement, competitors will be nipping at your heels as they try to reach and then pass you in the marketplace. That is the key reason to ensure that your team never lets up on continual changes.
A summary on other ideas to consider to ensure success with your process improvement initiative are covered in the video below.
Keeping it going, continuously
The right software app is key to successfully standardizing improvements once they are designed and initially implemented. That’s where Tallyfy’s process mapping and improvement tool comes in.
Tallyfy makes it easy to keep everyone working in tandem rather than at odds towards the company’s goals. The app offers a unique way to maintain progress already in place across the board while still enabling new improvements to bubble up for review.
Sign up for a free trial to learn how the app can map and track workflows, standardize and automate any repeatable process, and transform your success.
Bonus Infographic – “How Do You Prepare for Process Improvement?”
Courtesy of the Process Consultant.