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Successful management of the continuous improvement process

While participative innovation makes it possible to invent new products and services or new ways of doing things, continuous improvement serves to subsequently raise their quality and performance levels. In our ultra-competitive world, a business can keep or win back its financial flexibility by eliminating waste and/or by creating new production initiatives.

The results of setting up a continuous improvement process can vary widely from one business to another. Some firms with lengthy experience in this area have already reached a decent level of operational excellence but, for the majority, there is still room for further progress.

To shed some light, the following is our comprehensive guide to continuous improvement management and best practice in rolling out a process effectively.

Why implement a continuous improvement process?

A number of factors might drive a business to consider a continuous improvement process, for example the findings of an audit report, ideas generated by employees, a wish to reduce production costs or gain market share, and so on. Such a process can potentially affect any aspect of the business, including administration procedures, production, finance, etc.

One key objective of continuous improvement is to switch to more prevention rather than managing cures. The aim is naturally to improve the overall operation of the entire business, sometimes iteratively, by reducing unproductive aspects or by cutting waste, for example. This ultimately delivers:

  • Improved working conditions for staff;
  • Greater customer satisfaction and therefore retention;
  • Better cooperation with partners (suppliers, etc.).
Why not make the work easier and more interesting so that people do not have to sweat? The Toyota style is not to create results by working hard. It is a system that says there is no limit to people’s creativity. People don’t go to Toyota to ‘work’ they go there to ‘think’.
Taiichi Ohno

The five key success factors in continuous improvement management

Continuous improvement is a mindset which aims to always do better and not be content with the existing state of affairs. If it is to deliver the goods, continuous improvement management requires this mindset to be instilled in all staff. This will demand a deep-rooted change in some business organisations, unused to the concept of “working better together”.

The five key success factors in continuous improvement management are therefore.

1Ensure strong commitment from senior management

Governance is one of the key success factors. “Do your best” is not enough to make continuous improvement a success because operational employees do not have free time to spend on vague good intentions. It is not merely ideal that senior management provide the driving force; it is a basic requirement if continuous improvement is to be effectively rolled out over the long term.

2Involve all staff from top to bottom

C = D * V * F > R. This formula was devised by David Gleicher, and later published by Richard Beckhard (Beckhard & Harris, 1987). It is intended to raise awareness of the need for change and for clear communication without riding roughshod over employees.

  • C = the desired change
  • D = dissatisfaction: if employees are satisfied, they will be less inclined to embrace change
  • V = vision (of the future): it is vital that employees see and understand the “big picture” of what it is possible to achieve, if they are to be enthusiastic about it
  • F = First step needed
  • R = Resistance to change

The formula describes the principle that the desired Change C will not occur if Resistance to change R is greater than DVF (Dissatisfaction, Vision and First step) combined.

Resistance to change is therefore the first challenge of continuous improvement and the key to success lies in anticipation. Hurdles must be identified at the earliest possible stage if they are to be overcome effectively.

3Use concrete facts and data

Action can only be taken within a continuous improvement process on tangible and measurable factors. The various types of action taken are always based on concrete facts:

  • Remedial measures that are taken just after a malfunction;
  • Corrective measures to avoid the malfunction occurring again;
  • Preventative measures, which must ideally replace the other measures in the long run, to enable potential malfunctions to be anticipated.

4Adapt the method to the situation

There are different methods for implementing a continuous improvement process and we will describe a few of them below. It is, however, essential to apply the right method to each issue if the right path to resolution is to be found. The methods can be used independently, although it is sometimes beneficial to combine them.

5Act according to the four steps in the Deming Wheel

The ideal way to establish a lasting continuous improvement process is to put the PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Act) cycle in place. Invented by the statistician Walter A. Shewhart, it was William Edwards Deming who modelled the 4-phase cycle in the form of a virtuous circle, the famous “Deming Wheel”, enabling the actions to be repeated perpetually:

  • Plan: precise, transparent objectives must be set if a business wishes to be in a position to prepare clear, understandable action plans.
  • Do: collaboration and teamwork are the keys to sharing responsibilities and motivation; this nonetheless requires regular communication.
  • Check: the results obtained must be continuously measured if a business wants to evaluate the impact of the actions and initiatives implemented.
  • Act: certain points can always be improved; communication and challenging employees therefore must continue…

Continuous improvement plan: the methods used

The various continuous improvement plan methods

Depending on the context, the team and the situation, some continuous improvement methods might be more suitable than others. While businesses sometimes follow methods to the letter, others use them as inspiration and adapt them to align with their fundamental requirements and objectives.

There are therefore various levels of action, from “Just Do it” to “Lean Sigma” projects, via all the intermediary examples of action plans. Another original approach is the “Give Me Five” concept, whereby the ratification level of an action depends on the time required to implement that action:

  • 5 minutes (Just Do It);
  • 5 hours (Just Do It with Manager ratification);
  • 5 days (projects with employee ratification);
  • 5 weeks (with ratification by unit management);
  • 5 months (with executive board approval).

Continuous improvement is first and foremost a mindset. Regardless of the method used, employee training is vital to success because staff must be convinced of the benefits of the process.

Performance analysis tools

  • The balanced scorecard,
  • Statistical checks on the process.

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Action plan management tools

Analysis tools

  • Mind mapping,
  • PERT (Program Evaluation and Review Technique).

Defect cause detection tools

Tools for selecting the appropriate solution

Process optimisation and consolidation tools

Achieving the best results from continuous improvement does nonetheless require focus and selection of the right tools while maintaining constant communication between staff about the various action plans in progress, ideally within a collaborative project management platform.

If you wish to find out best practice to deliver successful action plans, download our ebook without delay:

How to make a success of your action plans