Have you heard about Six Sigma, Lean, Kaizen or the Toyota Production System? These are all continuous process improvement strategies. But what is continuous process improvement exactly and how can it affect your business? Let’s take a look at what is considered a continuous improvement strategy and the reasons every business should be adopting one.
What is a continuous improvement strategy?
A continuous improvement strategy is simply a planned system of improvement and change, intentionally improving operations over time. Instead of a chop-and-change reaction to a sudden realized need to change, a Continuous Improvement Process (CIP) systematically identifies and implements changes.
Regardless of the CIP methodology you choose, they all start by measuring the current as-is state. The problem to be addressed is identified. You plan what you’ll change and make the changes. Then, per the data-driven management methodologies first identified by leaders like Peter Drucker, you measure the new state of operations, making sure the intended change has the desired effect. Once things are stable, everyone has been trained in the new processes, and you’ve “sustained the gain”, you can look for the next problem to solve.
The reasons to adopt a CIP
Planned process improvements over time allow you to make progress toward goals, whether they are waste reduction, cost reductions, quality improvement or reduced cycle-time. When you’ve adopted a continuous improvement process of some sort, you’re continually working toward “better” outcomes no matter what your goal is. You won’t coast until you realize the sudden need to catch up with your rivals, after which you’re playing defence.
You should know that you don’t have to choose one specific process improvement methodology and stick with it forever. For example, you could implement Six Sigma as a continuous improvement process for several months while improving product quality or service levels before shifting to “lean” so you can reduce your company’s waste, rework and downtime while improving your environmental bona fides.
Another benefit of continuous improvement processes is the cultural shift it engenders. You’re continually looking for ways to improve, and the quick wins are the ones managers value most. This should result in an open flow of suggestions and advice from everyone from the shop floor to engineering to service department staff all giving ideas on how to improve things.
Whether these changes reduce error rates, decrease defects or simplify operations so that more gets done in the same period of time, you’re finding ways to improve that others already recognize and thus wholeheartedly support. Now your organization is sorting through good ideas to find those with the best return on investment for the company, knowing that you’ll have stakeholder support in almost every case.
The benefits of a continuous improvement strategy over radical innovation
First, you cannot rely on breakthroughs because you cannot guarantee you’ll invent a new process or product. However, you can systematically make changes to production to increase productivity several percentage points each time until you have a far more efficient operation.
Second, incremental process improvements are more likely to succeed than major changes in the workplace. Each project is a small to mid-sized change in one area, and all projects in a CIP are small enough that they can be rolled back or altered if found afterwards to not have the desired outcome. As you slowly and consistently improve operations from the back office to the shipping dock, you’ll see the dramatic improvements that a major project might create without the same risk of failure.
A continuous improvement strategy allows for a constant flow of ideas to improve every area of the organization. You’ll also be able to make adjustments proactively instead of reactively, allowing you to stay ahead of the curve instead of making changes only in response to the realization you’re falling behind.