Getting Started with Continuous Improvement, Part 2: Implementing and Measuring

Getting Started with Continuous Improvement - Implementing and Measuring

In the first post in this series on continuous improvement, we discussed planning to improve, including how to set up your Kanban board to collect meaningful continuous improvement metrics. Continuing our use of the PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Adjust) framework, this post will cover the next two steps in the cycle of continuous improvement: Do and Check!

Do: Identify Areas for Improvement

We always encourage teams to design their first Kanban board to accurately reflect their current process, even though it may be tempting to try to start implementing improvements as soon as you see opportunities for them.

This is because it’s helpful, when identifying areas for improvement, to have a clear understanding of the problem: What it is, how it affects your team, and what downstream impact it may have. That way, when you begin to brainstorm solutions for that problem, you’ll be able to design a way to measure the impact of each solution and determine whether the solution successfully achieved its intended result.

It’s also important to wait to make changes until you can discuss them with everyone using the board. If you begin implementing changes without discussing them across the team, you might result in a board that works perfectly for some people—and doesn’t work at all for others.

So, you decide to wait until your team can meet before implementing changes to your board. Good work! You schedule a meeting and gather together in a room around a screen where your Kanban board is being displayed.

What if we have ideas before then?

In the meantime, you agree to take notes on where you see opportunities for improvement so that you come to the meeting prepared to discuss. This is one way to keep a running record of your improvement ideas. Another is to—no surprise here—visualize them on your board!

To do this, create a different card type on your board for Kaizen—continuous improvement—ideas. Whenever anyone on the team has an idea for continuous improvement, have them create a card of that card type and place it in the backlog.

If you’re worried about Kaizen cards cluttering up your board, or messing with your board metrics, you can also choose to use a separate board specific for improvement activities.

For the sake of discussion later on, it can be helpful to define, as a team, the details that you’d like to include in each card. These might include:

  • What is the problem?
  • When does the problem occur?
  • Who does the problem affect?
  • What impact does the problem currently have on the team?
  • What would change if we resolved this problem?

The answers to these questions can be brief, as long as they help the team quickly understand the extent of the problem. This will prevent you from having to spend time in your Kaizen meeting explaining what “need a better process for Testing” means.

Then, when the team meets to discuss, filter the board to display only the Kaizen card type, and let team members add cards to discuss if they haven’t already.

Types of Improvement Opportunities

Before we dive into how to run your continuous improvement, or Kaizen, meeting, let’s illustrate some examples of the types of improvement opportunities that might be included in this exercise.

Board Structure Improvements

These are ideas to help the board structure more accurately reflect your team’s workflow. They might include things like:

  • You do not think the main ‘lane’ titles accurately reflect the steps in your team’s workflow.
  • You identify the need for a ‘wait state’ between one active step and another.
  • You see the need for multiple types of ‘Done’ lanes, to show the progress of different types of work.

Workflow Improvements

Your team will likely also have ideas for how to improve how your team uses the board, or how they communicate around the use of the board, such as:

  • You recognize a need for clearer process policies around when cards get moved, and who is responsible for moving them.
  • You realize that there isn’t a defined process for when cards are ‘assigned’ to someone, and who is responsible for assigning people to cards.

Metrics-Based Improvements

In the first post in this series, we discussed setting up your board to collect Lean/Agile metrics around your team’s performance. After reviewing these metrics, your team might identify areas for improvement such as:

  • Our lead time on X type of work is twice as long as other types of work. Why is that?
  • We have a lot of cards sitting in Queue states for over a week at a time. Why is that?
  • Some team members seem to be assigned to 3-4x as many cards as other team members. Is this simply because of the different nature of their work, or do we have a work distribution issue to address?

Do: Have a Kaizen Meeting

Establish Meeting Agenda

The goal of continuous improvement is, of course, to enable the team to deliver the most value to the customer. This starts by having a board and team process that allows them to do their best work.

It’s important to create space for all of these types of improvements to get voiced, so that the team feels comfortable speaking up in the future when there are avoidable factors affecting their ability to do their best work.

Before diving into discussing specific improvement ideas, align around a shared agenda for the meeting, which should be to:

  • Brainstorm all improvement ideas to discuss
  • Use the board to systematically review and discuss each idea
  • Determine next steps for each improvement idea the team decides to pursue
  • Create a plan for how to measure the impact of any changes made

Brainstorm Improvement Ideas

Once you’ve established the agenda for the meeting, set aside a few minutes at the beginning of the meeting to allow everyone to add any ideas they have that might not already be on the board. If you’re using your Kanban board to facilitate your meeting, let everyone add cards using their own laptop, rather than asking everyone to shout out ideas (which can be intimidating for some).

On the board, display an example of a card with all the details filled out as you previously decided, such as:

  • What is the problem?
  • When does the problem occur?
  • Who does the problem affect?
  • What impact does the problem currently have on the team?
  • What would change if we resolved this problem?

Remind everyone that the goal of this exercise is to help the team create more value for the customer, and that there are no ‘bad’ ideas. Start a timer for 5-10 minutes, and let everyone get to work without interruption.

Prioritize High-Value Cards

Time’s up! If your team has a lot of cards to discuss, pat yourselves on the back! This means that your team is actively engaged in continuous improvement! This also means that you’ll need to figure out a way to prioritize the most impactful cards over those that might not have as big of an impact on the team.

One way to do this? If your digital Kanban board allows you to assign multiple people to a card, use this function as a way to ‘vote’ on the ideas most important to each person. Decide how many ‘votes’ each person gets, and give everyone a few minutes to ‘vote’ on the ideas that are most important to them.

Once ‘voting’ is closed, have one person tally the votes and organize the cards from most votes to least, to determine the order in which the ideas will be discussed.

Discuss and Delegate High-Value Cards

One by one, allow the person who created each card to introduce it to the team. You don’t have to necessarily have solutions to each of the problems you identify—in fact, we’d encourage you to avoid ‘solutionizing’ until your team discusses what the problem actually is.

For each card, discuss the card details, and allow all team members to add details to the card about how that issue affects them. If you agree, as a team, that the problem needs to be solved, brainstorm solutions that might solve the problem.

For quicker fixes, decide when to implement the change, who will be responsible for implementing it, and how you will measure the impact of the change.

If it seems that the solution to the problem is more complex, discuss whether this problem can be broken down into smaller subtasks. If so, break the card into smaller cards for each of those, and decide how to handle those as a team.

If the problem is complex but can’t seem to be broken down, delegate a few team members to investigate the problem and return to the team with a few possible solutions at a later date.

You might not get to discuss every single card on the board, and that’s okay. As long as the cards with the most votes get discussed and implemented, you’ll still be making progress over your previous state.

Determine Action Items and How to Measure

As you discuss each card, you should end the discussion with a conversation around action items. Namely:

  • What are the next steps for implementing this improvement?
  • Who is responsible for implementing the improvement?
  • How will we measure the impact of the improvement?
  • When do we expect to see results from this improvement?

If you’ve been using a Kaizen card type or a separate Kaizen board to track your improvement ideas, the next steps are easy: Just add whatever details you need to add to each card to work it into your usual workflow and move it into the appropriate lane. Decide as a team what you’d like to do with cards that have not been prioritized. They can either stay in your backlog, or you can choose to archive them, trusting that if they continue to be a problem, they will surface again in further conversations.

If you’ve been using a separate board, move the prioritized cards over to your teams’ main board so that you can track Kaizen work alongside existing work. Be sure to add due dates, or other accountability measures so that this work doesn’t get deprioritized and forgotten.

Check: Review Impact of Improvement Efforts

Having a regular Kaizen meeting is not only helpful for helping your team identify opportunities for improvement. It’s also a great way to hold your team accountable for measuring the impact of improvement activities.

Before you leave your Kaizen meeting, be sure to schedule your next meeting, during which you will once again have the opportunity to discuss and implement ideas for continuous improvement. This is also when you will share the results of your improvement activities to date. While some improvement activities will require time to truly make a measurable impact, others might have near-immediate results.

In the next post, we’ll discuss the final step in the cycle of continuous improvement (Adjust), and share how one team has been using LeanKit to practice continuous improvement and drastically improve their cycle time.

Maja Majewski

Maja has always been interested in the intersection of psychology and business. After studying Human and Organizational Development and Corporate Strategy at Vanderbilt University, Maja joined the LeanKit team as a content writer, where she was able to dive deeper into her exploration of how people, processes, and technology interact. She has authored over 200 articles and ebooks for several high-growth B2B companies, including LeanKit, Planview, Customer.io, and Clearbit. She served as the lead writer and researcher on LeanKit's Lean Business Report in 2016.

When not writing about process improvement, Maja practices it in her personal life - finding applications for her mantra "Better than before!" in everything from cooking to exercising. She enjoys spending time at home and going on adventurous vacations with her boyfriend and their German Shorthaired Pointer, Wrigley. Connect with Maja.