What is Continuous Improvement?

Continuous Improvement Defined

Continuous improvement, or Kaizen, 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.

Kaizen: A Flexible Practice

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 improvement 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

Benefits of Continuous Improvement

Streamline Workflows

Working to constantly improve is the number one way in which many businesses reduce operating overhead. Continuous improvement (sometimes known as ‘Rapid improvement’) is a Lean improvement technique that helps to streamline workflows. The Lean way of working enables efficient workflows that 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.

Reduce Project Costs and Prevent Overages

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.

Gain Flexibility

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 Lean ways of working, including 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 Lean improvement techniques 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

Working to constantly improve is the number one way in which many businesses reduce operating overhead. Continuous improvement (sometimes known as ‘Rapid improvement’) is a Lean improvement technique that 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.

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