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Effective methods and tools for managing continuous improvement

Continuous improvement is an issue for all businesses and organizations. It’s difficult to live without it – unless you don’t have any clients, employees, or competitors. Innovation is key to discovering new methods, products or services, while continuous improvement is key to improving performance and quality.

The environment – like client expectations and employee demands – evolves constantly and disruptive innovations abound. Such a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environment (known as VUCA) constantly generates opportunities for progress. The good news is that organizations can learn to seize them. In this competitive world, stagnation means decline. Not having a continuous improvement plan can result in massive costs in corrective actions and can be fatal.

Some businesses are already way ahead. They understand that continuous improvement is an ongoing process. And that’s the best attitude to take. Continuous improvement is not a destination, but a state of mind that organizations need to cultivate and nurture.

We developed this comprehensive guide on managing continuous improvement with action plans, by observing best practices, methods, and tools where they have proven effective.

Why implement a continuous improvement process?

Naturally, everyone – and undoubtedly every organization – aspires to improve, but good intentions aren’t enough. Nor is the infamous “good team sense”. These assumptions blind leaders to the benefits of an effective continuous improvement approach.

Continuous improvement aims to abandon a corrective – or at best, reactive – approach and adopt preventive – and most importantly, proactive – management. Organizations can then identify room for maneuver on an ongoing basis, giving them the opportunity to adapt and anticipate changes in their environment. The aim is not to do more with less but to do better. Key benefits include:

  • Offering better employee conditions,
  • Increasing customer satisfaction and loyalty,
  • Improving organizational efficiency.

But continuous improvement must be organized to optimize opportunities and implement action plans that result in concrete benefits. Finally – and this is key – continuous improvement is not an issue for a select number of departments. If continuous improvement is to have structural results, the entire organization must be involved – horizontally and vertically.

Continuous improvement plan: the methods used

Managing Continuous Improvement: The 5 Keys to Success

Remember that continuous improvement is a state of mind: a constant quest for better, never settling for the status quo. It’s a mindset that must be instilled and integrated at all levels of the organization. The impact will be more effective if the approach pervades the entire company. Customer satisfaction is not only the sales team’s problem!

1Involve senior management

There are unlimited ideas and opportunities for progress but resources are scarce. Governance – with the management team’s commitment – must determine the priorities for improvement because there is leverage for performance throughout any organization.

Reciting catch phrases and buzz words does not lead to continuous improvement. Senior management needs to back it with resources. Resources and time must be dedicated to the project with training in methods and tools.

Management’s definitive engagement is fundamental. Can you remember management’s last visit in the field? When were they last seen doing a Gemba Walk, in a workshop, factory, shop or call-center? That is a sound indicator of their involvement – and it’s crucial.

2Master the formula for change

Resistance to change is the first challenge for a continuous improvement approach. We are all more motivated to solve a problem if we think it will make our lives easier.

David Gleicher’s formula for change C = D x V x F > X was published in 1987 (Beckhard & Harris). How does it work? It shows that change requires time.

According to researchers, desired change only occurs if Resistance to Change, (R) is lower than:

  • Dissatisfaction (D). Sources of discontent are more likely to mobilize employees.
  • V for Vision (of the future): fuels enthusiasm. Teams need to be able to imagine themselves in the new reality after the change has occurred.
  • F (First step) is the first concrete step because it’s not always easy to envisage the course to be taken.

The formula sums it up perfectly, and quite naturally: targeted change will only succeed if resistance to change is quashed by the force of dissatisfaction, but also – and above all – by a desirable vision of the future and a first step that is understood and within reach.

3A network of continuous improvement facilitators

It's rare to meet someone roaming the building who says they have nothing to do. Yet, if badly targeted, continuous improvement just creates more work. Teams can be tempted to take refuge behind excuses for not getting on with it.

The best solution is to create a network of facilitators, including some managers. Facilitators streamline the additional workload and ensure employees have time for the new activities required for progress. They ensure teams keep some available bandwidth for continuous improvement.

4Adapt governance, methodology, and tools to match the type of initiative

Not all continuous improvement initiatives can be managed the same way or at the same level. The approach must be adapted to the features of each initiative: Which departments are impacted? What are the technical issues? What resources are required?

You can’t manage a “Just do it” action, a small, local project, or a project redesigning a transversal process the same way. And yet, “to the man who only has a hammer, everything he encounters beings to look like a nail” (Abraham Maslow, 1966). Like when the only tool around to manage action plans is an Excel file, where each idea is reduced to a line despite requiring completely different actions.

In other words, it’s useless to compare apples to oranges. It may seem obvious, but it’s a useful reminder when launching a continuous improvement process.

5Measure impact and encourage continuous improvement

It’s difficult to improve what we don’t know how to measure. As a result, measuring is fundamental to any successful continuous improvement process.

Measuring is vital for assessing the status quo, envisaging yourself in the desired situation, and taking stock of the effort required. Measuring also makes it possible to communicate on results with concrete and unequivocal information and give merit to teams who contribute to continuous improvement regularly.

Want to know more about best practices for a successful action plan? Download our ebook:

How to make a success of your action plans

Continuous improvement plan: methods and tools

Choosing the right continuous improvement process depends on the context, issues, and culture of the business. Some companies apply them strictly, others use them for inspiration, adapting them to match their values and strategic priorities.

A well-known method for managing action plans

The Lean 6 Sigma with DMAIC is a proven approach that never fails to inspire. It combines DMAIC project methodology (Define – Measure – Analyze – Innovate or improve – Control) with a tried and tested program organized around trained and qualified people (from “White Belt” to “Master Black Belt”).

Cause analysis tools

It’s so much easier to find solutions when you have identified the cause of the problem! Our preferred tools are:

“Give me 5”: Identify who gives approval

It’s important to set appropriate approval levels because actions vary from a simple “Just Do It” to more complex projects. The “Give me 5” concept is an effective and original approach where approval of an initiative depends on deployment time.

  • 5 minutes: A “Just Do It” for which employees must be autonomous.
  • 5 hours: A “Just Do It” that requires manager approval.
  • 5 days: A action plan approved by a local manager.
  • 5 weeks: A action plan approved by senior management.
  • 5 months: A project approved by the executive committee.

Useful methods for choosing the most suitable solution for improvement

We are yet to address tools. Far too often this state of mind is cultivated by organizations which see processes flourish only to end up with a list of initiatives stuck in Excel files. The organization is mesmerized by tomes of unreadable and unsharable spreadsheets which stop teams in their tracks.

That’s why Humanperf designed IDhall – a solution for managing and organizing continuous improvement processes. It’s a comprehensive collaborative platform that stores all the initiatives, encourages team engagement, and accelerates action plan deployment.

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This article was first published on June 28, 2018 and was last updated on October 24, 2022.

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