6 Continuous Improvement Tools and Techniques
So you’ve been learning about continuous improvement and are looking for actionable ways to implement it. How do you get started?
The first step is to assess the current state of your team or organization: What do you do well? Where do you struggle? What seems broken? What is starting to crack under the pressure of growth? Analyzing your current state as a group is a great way to energize people around change.
Then, try these continuous improvement tools and techniques:
- Kanban, to help you visualize, manage, and optimize your workflows.
- A3s, to provide vision and structure to big-picture improvements.
- The PCDA Cycle, to systematically test hypotheses.
- Gemba walks, to keep leaders and front-line workers on the same page.
- The 5 Whys, to encourage inquisitive thinking and effective problem-solving.
- Value Stream Mapping, to help organizations focus on structuring processes around customer needs.
You’ll learn more about each of these continuous improvement tools and techniques below.
Kanban helps you harness the power of visual information by using sticky notes on a whiteboard to create a “picture” of your work. Seeing how your work flows within your team’s process lets you not only communicate status but also give and receive context for the work.
Unlike other methods that force fit change from the get-go, Kanban is about evolution, not revolution. It hinges on the fundamental truth that you can’t get where you want to go without first knowing where you are.
There are four big ideas in Kanban:
- Visualize your process
- Limit work in process
- Focus on flow
- Continuously improve
Learn more about them here. Kanban be used to manage individual, team, or even organization-wide work. Although popularized by software teams, Kanban can be applied to virtually any process that has distinct steps, and is frequently used by marketing, sales, finance, and other disciplines.
A3 is a structured approach to problem solving used by Lean and Agile organizations. The term A3 describes a type of oversized paper which is used to plan projects. The purpose of an A3 is to:
- Document the learning, decisions, and planning involved with solving a problem
- Facilitate communication with people in other departments
- Provide structure to problem-solving so as to maximize learning (source)
A3s usually include the following elements:
- Current condition
- Cause analysis
- Target condition
- Implementation Plan
- Follow-up and benefits
They are incredibly useful for planning, especially for work conducted across cross-functional teams. Teams and organizations can also use A3s to implement continuous improvement ideas.
Plan-Do-Check-Act (PCDA) Cycle
The (Plan-Do-Check-Act) PCDA Cycle is another excellent continuous improvement technique. Similar to the scientific method, the PCDA cycle is a way of identifying and testing hypotheses. The four steps of the PDCA Cycle are:
- Plan: Identify an opportunity and plan for change.
- Do: Implement the change on a small scale.
- Check: Use data to analyze the results of the change and determine whether it made a difference.
Act: If the change was successful, implement it on a wider scale and continuously assess your results. If the change did not work, begin the cycle again. (source)
Lean leaders recognize that the vast majority of the value generated in their organizations is by the people with their hands on the product. The best ideas for improving their organizational processes can only come from those employees. And leaders can only tap into that knowledge by getting out of their offices and, to use another Japanese term, going to the gemba — the place where things are really happening.
Gemba walks are informal, casual opportunities for leaders to get a sense of what’s happening in the organization. Our research shows that executive sponsorship is a key component of practicing continuous improvement - and executives can’t support initiatives wholeheartedly if they don’t understand the problems behind them.
The 5 Whys
The 5 Whys is a thinking tool for identifying the root causes of problems. By using the 5 Whys, teams practicing continuous improvement are able to move past blame, think beyond the specific context of a problem, and identify a proper, sustainable solution to resolve the issue.
The 5 Whys is very simple in practice: You start with a problem statement, and then ask “why” until the root cause is revealed and the answers become absurd. Here is an example a marketing team might experience:
Problem: Our blog writing process is slow.
Why? Blogs are usually tossed around between several team members and go through several editing cycles.
Why? Because we don’t have anyone owning that process, so it seems like it’s everyone’s responsibility and no one’s responsibility at the same time.
Why? Because we never decided on a clear process for blogging.
Why? Because…. we’re busy?
The last response here is a little absurd, of course. The root cause seems to have been revealed after the third Why?: The team never created a process for blogging, therefore blogging doesn’t follow a process, therefore the ‘process’ is slow. Instead of pointing fingers, the team can now work together to create an effective, streamlined blogging process with clearly defined roles and steps.
Value Stream Mapping (VSM)
Lean value stream mapping is gaining momentum in knowledge work because it encourages systems thinking, resulting in better communication, more effective collaboration, and more team wins. Any team can enjoy the improved productivity and collaboration that mapping your process can provide. Although advanced mapping software and complex metrics can be incredibly valuable, they’re not required for teams to begin to enjoy the benefits of value stream mapping. Teams can get started easily by gathering around a whiteboard and defining the various steps involved in seeing their product, project, or service from start to finish.
Learn more about value stream mapping here.
To learn more about how to practice continuous improvement, we recommend the following resources: