In our personal and professional lives, a commitment to improvement is often the hallmark of success.
Beyond only immediate fixes for business challenges, though, the drive to be better can flow throughout a company, provided it is encouraged and allowed to flourish.
Modern management practice began to fully embrace continuous improvement in the 1970s, when Japanese companies were desperate to reverse a global reputation for low-quality products. That they did, as household names like Toyota, Sony, and Panasonic all found their feet thanks to a focus on precise manufacturing improvements, which eventually brought the brands attention for top-of-the-range, reliable products. Followed by Motorola, 3M, and many other prominent American brands, continuous improvement also obtained a reputation for high success rates.
An interesting note on the subject is that although the practice rose to prominence in Japan, and is best known by its Japanese term “kaizen,” it was American engineer W. Edwards Deming who provided the impetus for its adoption there. Deming subsequently became a celebrated figure in management theory and was widely honored in Japan for his part in the country’s return as a global economic influencer.
The term kaizen is easy enough to dissect:”Kai” translates as “change,” while “zen” is “good,” which when placed together are synonymous with improvement. Other theories rooted in that tradition include Six Sigma, lean manufacturing, and agile operations, but even with all of these variations on the theme, there are some core necessities to drive continuous improvement in your organization, which is what we’ll explore in this article.
8 Ways to Drive Continuous Improvement
Before you start on any improvement drive, it’s important to understand the difference between targeted improvement and continuous improvement programs. Each has its place, but only the latter requires a commitment that runs throughout the organization and has no set end point.
While an improvement project will have a team, milestones, and a distinct deadline, the continuous improvement process looks for input from across the company, involves multiple projects beginning and ending at any one time, and is often a cultural shift that begins at the top and takes time to implement.
More than anything else, the focus should be on developing a kaizen-style philosophy, rather than trying to implement one. These eight ideas are central to that development process and will give your company a firm foundation on which to build it:
- 1. Become firm friends with the PDCA Cycle: A simple way to frame your ideas and improvement plans can be boiled down to this four-step cycle advocated by Deming: Plan > Do > Check > Act.
- 2. Start small, expand out: Proof of concept is as important to the success of your program as any tangible results, at least in the early stages, so you’ll probably want to run a limited example to demonstrate what you have in mind. Even with a limited focus, perhaps targeting one localized business challenge, the team that addresses the issue should be cross-departmental. This team should also follow the version of the PDCA cycle that you expect to use as you expand your improvement program, so that formal processes, checks, and balances can be put in place.
- 3. Encourage ideas: Feedback and self-reflection are valuable in almost every business context, so it stands to reason that creating an environment in which everyone can contribute ideas is the cornerstone of any company-wide improvement process. When employees see their input driving change or, better yet, are empowered to act upon their improvement ideas, the spread of a kaizen-like mentality becomes all the more natural.
- 4. Instill it in your team and training: Flowing from ideas, you will also need a common understanding of your improvement practices and the right leaders to drive them at every level of the business. Nowhere is that more important than your training materials, which will lay the foundation for actually implementing concrete improvement measures. Use your early practice runs to create training materials that capture the key points of your approach to kaizen, and use the same cycle that informs your improvement philosophy to create better training at every review.
- 5. Have a plan to formalize your process: Every iteration on the improvement cycle looks different, depending on the unique needs of the organization and how quickly a program can be expanded to other areas of the business. That process runs a lot more smoothly when you have a clear mission statement for your improvement program and a focused plan to roll it out to new departments.
- 6. Work to targets: To judge the effectiveness of anything in your organization, including your supply chain, it’s vital to establish appropriate metrics. Every improvement your program works on should have at least one number that you can monitor to measure success. More broadly, your entire improvement program should be set to key metrics that align with its mission statement, whether that’s a dollar amount tied to reducing waste, a percentage that defines your operational efficiency, or a number that quantifies customer satisfaction.
- 7. Appraise honestly: Even as you celebrate your successes, a fundamental part of continuous improvement means identifying things that could have gone better. This applies as much to the program itself as it does the individual element of the business that has been improved. By being aware and open to new opportunities to make things better, your program will never be short of its next project.
- 8. Never settle: It goes without saying that continuous improvement does not stop! The tendency of most management projects, especially those that arise from consultants, is to focus on individual business challenges and tackle them in a set period of time. With kaizen, the improvement philosophy must extend out from management to the entire organization and be repurposed for a variety of business challenges (especially those you don’t know exist yet).
A Note of Caution
Although kaizen-inspired continuous improvement practices have been a part of operational planning for decades, it’s worth mentioning that there has been some pushback against these philosophies in recent years.
A primary source of criticism holds that some improvement philosophies are too strict in their requirements, asking too much of employees and setting unrealistic expectations of change. For that reason, it’s important to fully understand the implications of your proposed program during the early test phase. Its rollout should also be targeted in a way that ensures maximum buy-in, so high value projects with enthusiastic leaders are worth prioritizing.
Nonetheless, it’s clear that a commitment to improve key areas of your business, especially those in and around your supply chain, can only lead to better service for your customers and greater efficiency in your operation. Carefully designed and consistently implemented, a continuous improvement program holds the potential to deliver significant bottom line benefits to any organization.
Read more about improving your operations in our article on removing waste from your supply chain.