There are a host of methodologies that businesses use to bring structure to the process of identifying and acting upon opportunities for improvement. You may be familiar with Six Sigma, Kaizen, Lean, Toyota Production System, and others. Although these methodologies differ, the foundation of each of them is the continuous improvement model.
The continuous improvement model reflects the idea that organizations should undertake incremental improvements to services, products, and processes. It applies to every industry and size of business. Six central principles guide it:
Principle 1. Improvements are based on small changes rather than major paradigm shifts or new inventions
This concept is essential because significant changes often feel frightening and destabilizing to organizations. By approaching change in small, incremental steps, the continuous improvement model reduces the fear factor and increases speed to improvement. When following this principle, the organization does not need to wait for a strategic shift or a new product release to begin to advance.
Any idea that eliminates waste speeds production times, reduces defects, or allows employees to develop new skills, is worth exploring. In addition, this approach opens the door to consider small-scale proposals to improve processes and enable employees to do their best work.
Principle 2. Employee ideas are valuable
The continuous improvement model relies greatly on employees, not only top management, to identify opportunities for improvement. This bottom-up improvement is effective because employees are closest to the problems and thus better equipped to solve them.
When thinking of these two principles, consider the value of engaging your staff. If you ask everyone in the organization for ideas to create a new product line or revolutionize how they care for their patients, you're not going to get anything; staff members are focused on their day-to-day work. They, understandably, can't come up with monumental ideas at the drop of a hat.
Instead, ask people what improvement they could make to save them 5 minutes a day. Then empower them to implement that improvement, and spread it to everyone else in the organization doing the same process. In this way, you can take a small idea that anyone could come up with and drive a significant impact. For example, say you get one idea from ten employees, each of which saves them five minutes per day. That's ten ideas. Share all ten of those improvements with one hundred other employees so that every one of them is now saving fifty minutes per day (10 ideas x 5 minutes each).
By asking people for a small idea that shaves 5 minutes off their day and propagating their ideas around the organization, you're about to save 3.4 YEARS of manpower with the ideas of just ten people. Imagine how much you would save if you extended the "ask" of a five-minute idea to your entire organization!
Another way to encourage employees to spot opportunities and implement improvements is to ask, "what bugs you?"
Most complaints involve a delta between the current state and the employee's idea of how things should be. Sometimes the gripe includes a specific recommendation. It might go something like, "If they would just do X, Y, and Z, the problem would be solved." Sometimes there is no solution included. You might hear, "There's got to be something they could do to fix this!"
Did you notice the operative word in each of these examples? They. When employees are disempowered and disconnected from the improvement process, all they can do is wait for "They" (management) to recognize and correct problems. When that doesn't happen, it's natural (and probably healthy) for people to express their frustration.
Leaders who adopt the continuous improvement model don't shy away from employee complaints.
Quite the contrary, they embrace them as opportunities for improvement. If a team member notices something amiss and says something about it, that's a good thing. Gathering employee ideas is the beginning of the improvement cycle. Companies with a culture of improvement take it even further. They give employees a process for reporting and acting upon ideas to save money, improve processes, satisfy clients, and improve quality. What's more, they provide systems and structure for doing so, and they recognize those who contribute to making the organization better one small initiative at a time.
People are often told not to complain about something unless they are willing to do something about it. That's only fair when there is something they can do. Good leaders give people that opportunity.
Principle 3. Incremental improvements are typically inexpensive to implement
Employees tend to focus on small changes that can be accomplished without a lot of expense. In fact, many ideas from employees involve eliminating process steps rather than adding them, which is an excellent way to ensure that every activity adds some value to the customer and reduces wasted effort.
We have the benefit here at KaiNexus of seeing the detailed improvement data of a ton of organizations at every stage of the improvement journey around the world, in nearly every industry. Through examining that data, we've discovered that 1.4% of improvement ideas have an impact of over $100,000, and each employee has an average annual impact of $25,000. So, not only are these ideas inexpensive to implement, but they can also have a massive effect on your bottom line.
Principle 4. Employees take ownership and are involved in improvement
Getting people to change the way they've always done things is hard. Do you know what makes it easier? Rolling out changes that originated from the front lines. When people come up with ideas to improve their own work, they intrinsically see the value of the changes. Knowing that improvements come from their peers inspires faith in the necessity of the changes.
By engaging your staff in the continuous improvement model, you empower them to take charge of their own work (but you help them as leaders). As a result, they're able to identify problems or opportunities for improvement, follow through on implementing their ideas, take credit for the work, and see a measurable impact from their efforts. In this way, the sole burden of improvement and process management is lifted from managers, who can spend their time more effectively coaching staff on improvement techniques and removing barriers to implementing changes.
Because the continuous improvement model relies on employees for ideas for improvement, they become more invested in the outcome of the change, and employee engagement increases. This increases the chance of successful, sustainable improvement. Improved employee engagement also has a positive impact on retention, customer service, product quality, and recruiting.
For more information about overcoming resistance to change, check out this free webinar:
Principle 5. Improvement is reflective
Constant feedback is an essential aspect of the continuous improvement model. During every phase of executing an improvement, open communication is critical to both the final results of the improvement and the maintenance of employee engagement.
Admittedly, this is tough to pull off in a traditional improvement culture. Coaches don't have the visibility they need to keep up with everyone doing the improvement work. Senior leaders can't engage without a major time commitment, meetings are tough to schedule, and communication gets buried in inboxes.
Organizations with a more modern approach to improvement use continuous improvement software to improve visibility and team collaboration, giving coaches access to the reports they need to evaluate performance and target coaching. Senior leaders can follow the improvements that matter to them and engage quickly and easily. Staff can get the help they need from their managers without having to wait for a meeting or an email. Essentially, continuous improvement software gets everyone on the same page by improving visibility and streamlining communication.
Another big advantage of an improvement platform is the ability to broadcast improvement success to the entire organization. When people see others recognized and rewarded for their work, they tend to double down on their own efforts.
Principle 6. Improvement is measurable and potentially repeatable
It is not enough to simply make a change and call it an improvement. To achieve real success, the impact of change must be measured. This makes it possible to determine if the change can be applied successfully to other problems. Proving positive ROI also helps keep the organization aligned around improvement.
Improvement can be measured (most easily with software) in terms of cost savings, revenue, time to market, customer satisfaction, safety incidents, collections, defect reduction, or almost any other key performance indicator for your organization.
Making continuous improvement part of company culture is an excellent and cost-effective approach to tackling an organization's most complex challenges. When supported by improvement technology, results can be achieved quickly, and success can be sustained over time.