During the last 30 years, many organisations have learned how to start and implement continuous improvement programs, often in line with initiatives such as Lean, 6 Sigma, Kaizen and more. The same continuous improvement methodology is seen as instrumental for the success of many forms of organisational change, including digital transformation, mergers and outsourcing.
To date, continuous improvement has been most successful in production and logistics organisations. The main reason for this is their ability to visualise the customer journey; the process that starts with a customer order and ends with product or service delivery.
Visualisation of the process is critical to the success of any continuous improvement (or change) process because it helps the employees/teams involved to understand the impact of any suggestion in the context of the complete process, and it is the basis for their personal involvement. Individuals know where they are involved in the process and what their task is at any given moment.
However, a wide array of businesses are now embracing the principles of continuous improvement to deliver sustained, enterprise-wide change. So, how do you implement continuous improvement for a more-administrative organisation?
- Organise the effort/teams in logical processes for your organisation. That is, define the processes for how your customers are serviced throughout the organisation; include people from each department involved and make all roles aware that they are the process team.
- Make sure to visualise the process and let the team do this. This should focus on request to delivery, even for internal processes. Do this in a workshop where all process roles are represented. NOTE - do not map the process based on individual interviews.
- No matter how much you want to focus on a new way of working, start with the existing situation, or As Is. This allows the teams to get involved and relate to the process.
- Make sure to highlight all relevant exceptions. This will drive involvement for each team member and give clarity on what is actually happening. Also, often the best improvements can be made in these exceptional cases.
- Allow the team to 'explore' the process. Flip the process around via swim lanes, zoom in to various details of the process (input, output, link with systems, locations, hand-over moments, etc) and run calculations to increase awareness for all members as to what is actually happening.
- Make sure you truly empower the team. Step away from traditional top-down management and let the team know that you empower them and that you/management will accept their recommendations and will charge the organisation with supporting and implementing the improvements that the team identifies. This will not only result in successful suggestions, as the team will feel ownership, but also encourage a long-term focus on improvement.
- Take special notice of 'low hanging fruit' for any improvement suggested by the process team. It is impossible to gain buy-in for large-scale change if the small pains individuals experience are not addressed. Also, the sum of all small changes adds up to a major improvement! Finally, these suggestions made by the process team can often be implemented easily, as they fit the process and are accepted by the team.
- Use Lean/6 Sigma/Kaizen concepts to study and improve the process. What if we take a pull approach, take out waste, take out non-value added steps, standardise, etc?
- Make small iterations. After small improvements are suggested, stop looking for more and first ask the team to implement them. Next, get them back together and ask if the improvements worked as planned.
- Celebrate your successes! Communicate the success, even the small successes from small steps, to the whole organisation. This gives credit to the team and inspires the rest of the business.
- Repeat for each stage of the business process, before moving on to the next.
- Set up such continuous improvement activities in multiple processes.
- Rotate team members from one process/continuous improvement project to others. They learn from one another and helps staff to realise that continuous improvement is the new normal.
Visualisation of the process and organising your team around these stages is the key to implementing continuous improvement in any setting.
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