The concept of continuous improvement seems simple enough: Get better, every day. So what is it that makes a change better? How do you make that change? How do you do it in such a way that it will be consistent, logical and sustainable for your organization?
There are no one-size-fits-all answers to those questions. A policy that may work for another company – such as allowing dogs into the office – may not necessarily work for yours. You need to consider not only the possible end result of any changes made, but also everything that comes before and after those changes.
Before elaborating on that, let’s backtrack a bit and clarify the concept of continuous improvement further.
What Continuous Improvement Is – and Isn’t
Continuous improvement isn’t simply a set of principles, nor is it a set of tools that can boost an organization’s profitability and efficiency in the blink of an eye. It’s a philosophy, a mindset, that if it’s possible to add value to any organizational component at all, that possibility must be thought about carefully.
For example, can an emerging market be penetrated? Can employee morale be boosted? Can sales be sustained, or even improved, if a new system was put into place? No matter how trivial these questions may seem, following through on them can open up a whole new set of opportunities for your organization.
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean a company should change for change’s sake. If an existing process or procedure is already 100 percent effective, it can be left alone. There are always other areas you can improve.
Why Continuous Improvement Is Necessary
History has countless stories about companies that fell by the wayside because of their inability to innovate, with Nokia being an egregious example. From a market share of 49.4 percent in 2007, the erstwhile mobile phone giant slipped to 43.7 percent, then 41.1 percent, then 34.2 percent and finally 3 percent – all because it was overly confident in the ability of its hardware to recognize the growing threat of software.
On the other hand, there’s Amazon. With ever-improving delivery systems, aggressive investments, commitment to customer satisfaction and long-term focus, the company is poised to become the world’s top retailer within the next 10 years. It may not have dislodged major competitors like Walmart yet, but it’s getting there – and fast.
How Continuous Improvement Can Be Done
Although continuous improvement doesn’t have any rules in the strictest sense of the word, it’s easier to follow in practice if you take the steps below.
1. Identify the Areas of Improvement
Not all areas of improvement are necessarily negative. For example, if an assembly line processes 100 million units a day, and that’s already considered excellent by industry standards, consider whether it’s possible to double that production, and how.
2. Check Whether the Problem Is the Actual Problem
To illustrate, let’s say you have an unproductive and demotivated employee. Will you assume right off the bat that it’s because of boredom. or will you consider other possibilities, like whether that employee is being bullied by her colleagues? Before you implement any solution, make sure it addresses the root of the problem, not just the symptom.
3. Ask Employees for Their Input
People, in general, fear change – unless they have a say in it. Let them know about the improvements you have in mind, but don’t implement them before your employees have a chance to chime in. With their input, it’s possible to further build on a plan that’s already good to begin with.
4. Start Small
What better way to find out whether an improvement works than to test it? Of course, it shouldn’t be on a company wide level at this point. Ask for a group/department/division to work as a control group, and evaluate the improvement plan from there.
5. Set Metrics
To make evaluation easier, define the parameters within which the plan can be assessed as effective or efficient. Use previous numbers – such as sales and employee performance – as a guide. Compare similar periods – quarterly should be compared with quarterly – for a more accurate assessment.
6. Track Your Progress
It’s easier to do this if you use tools designed to measure continuous improvement. Charts and graphs, for example, can summarize the big picture using neat visuals. When you have something as major as an improvement plan to implement, efficiently interpreting the relevant data is vital.
After collecting, analyzing and interpreting the data, it’s time to ask the important questions. Did the plan improve, have no effect on or worsen the area of concern? Should the plan be refined, left as it is or scrapped altogether? What can be changed to make it better?
8. Rinse and Repeat
Since continuous improvement is, well, continuous, any plan you implement in its name shouldn’t be a one-off thing. Start from step one, evaluate, then start again. With every iteration of that cycle, you may discover other problem areas that may not have been obvious before.
9. Encourage Change
Often, the best ideas come from the unlikeliest places. If an employee approaches you and makes a suggestion, thank them for bringing it up to you, even if you don’t necessarily agree with their proposal. As Jack Welch proved during his stint as GE’s CEO, candor in the workplace is crucial to success.
10. Write It All Down
Keep a copy of every version of the improvement plan. That way, everyone who has that copy will be on the same page, and you can refer back to previous versions in case you scrapped something you shouldn’t have.
Continuous improvement doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It should involve everyone in the organization, from the lowliest employee to the highest-ranked CEO. When a company becomes more open to change, it becomes more open to success, too.