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Essential techniques for mastering continuous improvement

Adopting a programme of continuous improvement can be a complex task to undertake. As a result, here we offer a range of techniques that can help to simplify this process.

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It can be a challenge for many businesses to know how to optimise their processes, what to prioritise and where to begin. However, that doesn't mean there aren't techniques out there to help make continuous improvement that much more straightforward.

Indeed, there are a wide range of helpful pointers we can offer to help ensure businesses get the best result from these efforts. Here we examine some of those top tips in detail:

Spend time on improvement

Firstly, Lean theories often state that all personnel should spend ten per cent of their time on continuous improvement; that's up to half a working day per person every week!

Critically, all personnel and departments that have roles in the customer-focussed end-to-end process should participate in this. Use technology that is made for this purpose, such as the Engage Process Suite - this allows people to intuitively participate without need for specific training.

You can read our whitepaper on how to run process workshops for additional tips and tricks.

Make improvement part of the culture and the overall company strategy

Culture must also form part of continuous improvement. This should not be hierarchical, but a top-down approach, with growing involvement and empowerment of process teams that is supported (not directed) by management.

In addition, make sure the mission and strategy statement of your company can always be translated to where operational excellence is needed. Continuous improvement must find its goals from there!

Start with processes that most need change

Where to start? It makes sense to ask management where the company has pain and to first focus on that.

A review of urgent changes is an important first step and workshops should be focused on how teams are going to effectively make improvements in practice. It's then important to first 'talk the walk', before being able to 'walk the talk'; jointly discuss where the pain is and what should be done, followed by doing just that.

Base improvements on visualisation of the complete process

Teams give the best suggestions and support implementation more fully if they oversee and have involvement in the complete end-to-end process. As a result, you should avoid sub-optimisation of improvements that focus on just one department.

Don't forget the workplace or workstation of people

In line with continuous improvement, make sure that workplace improvement is part of the programme as well. You cannot ask people to participate creatively if their own tools and workplace settings are not keeping track.

The quality/instruction handbook should look the same as the continuous improvement tools

The digital handbook should allow users to see the whole process and look at all of its different aspects that were used during the workshop. This ensures teams are able to make the link between improvement efforts and doing the actual work. In other words, improvement efforts should not be a trick of a boardroom.

To support ongoing improvement, make sure the handbook not only looks the same as the processes discussed in improvement sessions, but has options for feedback/suggestions as well. The proof of the pudding is in the eating and ongoing involvement and feedback is critical.

After any process review and improvement session, make sure no-one goes back to their workstation empty handed - our Viewer can help with that. Having day-start sessions is wonderful. But if you do, please make sure they are process-centric and all roles involved in such processes participate.

Don't be afraid to take risks

Create an atmosphere where making mistakes is accepted. Encourage people to report things that are not OK, as well as things that can be improved. However, don't focus on finding out 'who caused the problem', but focus on finding the root cause. Ask the teams themselves to find a solution. Do not forward it to an engineer or other 'smart person', but make that individual part of the process improvement team.

When an improvement idea is risky, let the team try it in real life. It is better to have guts and to come up with 100 ideas with 20 proving to be good, than being conservative and ending up with just ten ideas. Having said that, make sure any idea is first positioned into the process (or product) and the team is challenged to think about its implementation.

Some ideas are just not possible in the short term. For example, those that need a significant change in an IT system. However, you should still have the guts to define them, try them, or even ask the team for a work around.

Treat everyone as equals

In companies there often are change leaders. If there is a Lean team, put the members on the workfloor and let them see first-hand the processes in action. Rotate the change leaders from process team to process team (or from department to department).

However, be careful not to elevate the status of central staff members; sure, they can be Master Black Belts, but measurable improvements by a team don't always require a certificate. Certificates or titles create the same 'distance' as wearing a formal suit and a tie.

Celebrate success but don't rest on your laurels

Communicate improvements to the whole company; let that inspire other teams. How can an improvement by one team be a suggestion for another? Organisations should also celebrate their success! Highlight, periodically, how the organisation is doing better as a result of improvements that have been made.

Finally, in many processes, it is evident that the sum of exceptions is often greater than the 'clean case', so make sure to look for improvements in those exceptions in your processes as well. In the long term, it is not a single large improvement that counts, but the sum of many small ones that will lead to the creation of a more agile and efficient business.

If we've whet your appetite to examine more closely how a commitment to continuous improvement can benefit your business, please download our whitepaper 'From Kaizen to Six Sigma: What process management style is right for you?' to find out more.
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