What is Continuous Improvement?

Continuous improvement is a method for identifying opportunities for streamlining work and reducing waste. The practice was formalized by the popularity of Lean / Agile / Kaizen in manufacturing and business, and it is now being used by thousands of companies all over the world to identify savings opportunities. Many of these ideologies can be combined for excellent results. For example, Kaizen and Kanban can go hand-in-hand to facilitate continuous improvement.

While many companies practice a formal version of a Lean / Agile method, other companies enjoy the flexibility of continuous improvement as a practice while reserving the right to deviate from the practice whenever a less formal approach is needed.

Continuous improvement can be viewed as a formal practice or an informal set of guidelines. Many companies have shifted focus to more formal approaches to project and process management such as Lean / Agile methodologies (Kanban, Kaizen, Scrum, XP). For example, Kaizen and Kanban can be integrated together to allow for continuous improve through visualization of workflow. In all Lean / Agile methodologies, continuous improvement is a primary focus, in addition to high customer service standards and the reduction of waste in the forms of cost, time and defects (rework).

The Continuous Improvement Cycle - LeanKit

Working to constantly improve is the number one way in which many businesses reduce operating overhead. Continuous improvement (sometimes known as ‘Rapid improvement’) helps to streamline workflows. Efficient workflows save time and money, allowing you to reduce wasted time and effort. For example, projects that involve shifting deadlines, changing priorities and other complexities are usually filled with opportunities to improve. It’s just that no one has taken action on that opportunity.

It’s important for a project manager to know the cost of completing a body of work. For this reason, most project management offices benefit from knowing the amount of time it takes to get certain types of work done. Project managers can reduce project cost and prevent overages using Forecasting Software. Forecasting (versus estimating) whether a project’s constraints are likely to be broken is one way in which project management offices are able to increase their overall effectiveness for the company.

While many companies practice a formal version of a Lean / Agile method, other companies enjoy the flexibility of continuous improvement as a theory while reserving the right to deviate from the practice whenever a less formal approach is needed. For example, teams that want to provide the space and time necessary for creativity or innovation may enforce the concept more loosely as they seek new ways to lead in the marketplace.

When To Use Continuous Improvement

Sacrificing quality can rarely be justified by the ability to do something faster or cheaper. To maintain quality standards while cutting time and cost, companies turn to continuous improvement.

By observing continuous improvement best practices, companies can figure out ways to continue business as usual while analyzing improvement opportunities along the way.

For companies whose teams are unable to practice continuous improvement throughout their day-to-day work, the next best way to leverage the concept is to hold continuous improvement events, otherwise known as Rapid Improvement events or Value Stream Mapping. Continuous Improvement events can take anywhere between one to five days to complete, depending on the depth and breadth of the topic to be covered, and team members usually come away with “to-do” items that help the new processes take hold within the organization and may require a small amount of time to execute.

Many companies have adopted Continuous Improvement / Lean as a standard by which all projects and work is done, while others choose to keep it at arm’s length. While continuous improvement helps save money for companies by helping to identify inefficiencies (project teams with many layers of management or manufacturing teams whose motions equate to money), other companies may perceive continuous improvement differently. After years of continuous improvement being touted as the most beneficial way to save on production cost, some companies say the philosophy has placed unexpected constraints on innovation and creativity. While companies seek ways to reduce waste, the less formal, sometimes messy creative process and ideation may hold more value in the long run than saving a few dollars on a particular process. It is impossible to put a price on innovation, therefore a company’s decision as to how much time to devote to continuous improvement can be complex. Whether or not a company chooses to make continuous improvement a part of its everyday culture depends on the particular needs of the company and the potential cost savings that may come as a result.

How to Practice Continuous Improvement

Practicing continuous improvement begins with identifying a current process, procedure, workflow or project. Fully understanding what you have to work with is the first step in improvement. This may seem obvious, but many companies that skip this step spend lots of time trying to fix a process only to discover that the process in question isn’t needed, or the process is so poorly integrated with the company that they must take a larger step backwards to look at the bigger picture.

Questions to ask when considering an area for improvement:
– How many people does this specific process affect?
– How much time do people spend working within the constraints of the current process?
– What would we gain if we spent time working to improve this process? (Gains should be measurable, as in dollars, hours or other value metrics that are quantifiable.)
– What other teams / processes would be impacted by changes to the current process, and how? Would those impacts serve as impediments? Is the amount of effort justified by the anticipated value of forming a new process?

Before deciding what initiative to devote time and effort to, companies may take a vote on which process or workflow they feel would most benefit from improvement. Once a topic is agreed upon, the team may come together to brainstorm. At this point, many teams follow a series of steps that go something like this:

  1. Map out the existing process using a project board or a kanban board. A project board can be a whiteboard that is populated with sticky notes. Each sticky note should represent a single piece of the process or action item. Teams should break down each process step as much as possible so that each step is clearly identified. Laying out sticky notes in a linear fashion (or whatever configuration best represents the process) is a good way for everyone to visualize what the process looks like and understand how each piece fits together. Using a visual project board also helps people understand a process, even if they are not necessarily involved in it. Involving the un-involved in the formation of new processes may seem counterintuitive, but it helps to have fresh eyes viewing the process for the first time to see that which may not have been so obvious to the team looking at the process every day.
  2. Identify areas of opportunity surrounding the mapped process. To do this, teams should analyze the current process and scrutinize areas that may be streamlined. For example, are there ways to reduce the time it takes for something to become approved? Are there unnecessary steps that are creating bottlenecks and/or causing people to wait? A classic example of process streamlining can be found in the manufacturing industry and the reduction of steps a worker must take to carry a widget from one location to another. Instead of requiring the worker to move faster (which does little but impose ineffective process management and lower the morale of the individual), the company moves the bin containing the widgets closer to the drop-off location, saving the worker several steps and saving the company seconds per work item completed, or seconds that get shaved off the total time it takes to manufacture one widget. While the immediate impact of one or two seconds may not seem to equate to very much money, it adds up over time.
  3. Finally, the team decides on a new process. Once all opportunities have been identified, the team works together to create a new process. The new process should be communicated to everyone who is impacted, and action steps may be taken away by certain team members who volunteer to help integrate the new process into the company. For example, if the new process impacts another process, the takeaway would be to work with a spokesperson for the impacted process to make the modifications that are necessary to accommodate the new process.

Continuous improvement is a great way for companies to identify opportunities and integrate improvements into the day-to-day workings of the company. Once continuous improvement has become second nature within the organizational culture, your team will begin to find opportunities in the most unexpected places, creating an environment that nurtures innovation and fosters a sense of ownership and pride among individuals.

Practice Continuous Improvement everyday using LeanKit’s Online Project Boards for Rapid Improvement. »

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