Continuous process improvement is exactly what it sounds like: improving your company’s processes on an ongoing basis. It’s about being continually aware of each step of getting your product or service to the customer, identifying where things can be improved and then improving them.
It’s Not Just for Toyota
Continuous process improvement is not just for big companies, and it’s not just for manufacturing companies. The “continuous” part may sound daunting, but it’s surprisingly simple.
When you see how easy and beneficial it is, you’ll probably want to apply continuous process improvement to everything your company does, but you can start with one department or process. One very popular model for building continuous process improvement into your business is the plan–do–check–act method, or PDCA.
Applying PDCA to Your Business
The first step to PDCA is to develop a plan, and the first step to coming up with a plan is to identify the problem you want to solve. If you have a pizzeria, it may be correcting inconsistent quality. If you own a day spa, it may be increasing customer satisfaction. Decide where you want to start, what needs to be accomplished and who needs to be involved.
The second step is to "do". This is where you’ll implement new policies and/or procedures to correct the problem you identified in the planning stage. Decide how you’re going to measure the efficacy of the solution you created. It may be through customer feedback, increased sales or fewer complaints.
In the third step, you’ll check your results by comparing before and after data to measure the success or failure of the new policies or procedures you implemented. If you’ve determined that the solution you implemented was successful, the fourth step is to act by keeping it going. If the solution didn’t work, act by beginning again with step one.
Implementing Continuous Improvement
Now that you know the continuous process improvement steps, let’s back up and talk about implementing continuous improvement. The most important part of implementing continuous improvement is to get buy-in from all the key players. If you’re a manager, you need to get your boss to buy in first and then your employees. If you’re the business owner, you need to get your managers and employees on board.
To achieve this, you’ll explain the benefits of continuous improvement:
- While implementing continuous improvement may take a little extra work up front, it will make everyone’s jobs easier in the long run.
- It gives everyone a voice and some influence on how things are done. Nothing raises employee morale like letting them have some control over what they do and how they do it. This can lead to less employee turnover.
- Productivity and quality go up while waste and costs go down. Managers: This is the best-selling point for business owners.
To get buy-in from the boss, prepare a presentation that emphasizes the benefits of continuous improvement and explain how you’ll implement it and carry it out. Explain PDCA if your boss is not familiar with it. To get buy-in from employees, have a meeting that includes everyone involved with the process you want to examine.
Meeting With Employees
When you meet with employees, have refreshments. Even if it’s just cookies, coffee, tea and water, it’s a nice gesture that will make the meeting feel more pleasant and relaxed. Explain to everyone what you’re trying to do. Emphasize that you’re asking for their help.
Do not make it out to be a witch hunt for who is screwing up. If you’re the pizzeria owner or manager dealing with inconsistent quality, you’ll explain that you want everyone's help examining each step in preparing a pizza to see where improvements can be made. If you’re the day spa owner or manager, you’ll be doing the same for each step of providing your services.
The examination part can be a little tricky because if people self-document, they may embellish what they do. If you’re doing the documenting, they may do their job more carefully because you’re looking over their shoulder. To address this, you can pair up employees and have them document each other's tasks. Alternatively, you can do a complete role reversal and perform your employees’ jobs for a couple of hours while having them walk you through what to do.
No Gotchas Allowed
As you look at each step in your business’s processes, no “gotchas” are allowed. No comments should be made while documenting steps or doing the role reversal method. A couple of questions are OK if clarification is needed, but absolutely no opinions should be expressed. Just perform the tasks and document them.
Explain that after the kick-off, identifying things that can be improved will be an ongoing part of their jobs. Consider a reward program for employees who identify problems and come up with solutions. Tell them that to earn the reward, they must be able to offer at least two solutions for each problem they bring to you.
Doing and Checking
Now that you’re done with planning and have made an initial run through to identify problems areas, you should be ready to “do”. The doing is implementing new policies and/or procedures that you think will solve the problems. Once again, ask employees for their suggestions.
However, it’s up to you to decide how you’re going to measure progress. You should have “before" data on costs, sales and customer feedback. If yours is a manufacturing company, you should have production data from before any new procedures went into effect. You’ll compare this data with the same data collected after the new procedures were implemented.
If the data compares favorably, you’ll act by keeping the new process going. If it’s an unfavorable comparison, you’ll act by backing up and trying again. Regardless of the outcome, meet with employees again and share the results.
Continuous Improvement Tools
Some great continuous improvement tools are available in the form of apps, but most of them are scaled for businesses of 100 employees or more. If you’re in this range, expect to spend $18,000 to $20,000 a year on the application. It will help you set up a framework, roll out continuous improvement and monitor how well your program is working (or not).
If you’re not that large yet, use Excel to track the continuous improvement process and outcomes. Have a separate spreadsheet for each process you’re examining. List the steps of the process in each row and allow at least two columns so you can enter before and after data. Based on your findings, you’ll know if the changes you implemented are working.
The Gift That Keeps Giving
Once you get going with continuous process improvement, you’ll wonder why you didn’t implement it sooner. It has untold benefits and only a few disadvantages, but the disadvantages are really more like challenges. One is that it can be hard to keep it going as the daily demands of each person’s job take precedent.
Another challenge is that the process might reveal that some of the changes that need to happen are enormous, but you can figure out this part, or you wouldn’t be a successful manager or business owner.
- American Society for Quality: Continuous Improvement
- California Manufacturing Technology Consulting: The Benefits of Adopting a Continuous Improvement Approach
- Mitre: Continuous Process Improvement
- KaiNexus: Sustain Improvement
- Reliable Plant: The Toyota Culture of Continuous Improvement
- Talk Business: The Advantages and Disadvantages of Kaizen to Business
- The Lean Way: Using the PDCA Cycle to Support Continuous Improvement (Kaizen)
LeDona Withaar has over 20 years’ experience as a securities industry professional and finance manager. She was an auditor for the National Association of Securities Dealers, a compliance manager for UNX, Inc. and a securities compliance specialist at Capital Group. She has an MBA from Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts and a BA from Mills College in Oakland, California. She has done volunteer work in corporate development for nonprofit organizations such as the Boston Symphony Orchestra. She currently owns and operates her own small business. In addition to writing for PocketSense, she writes for Bizfluent, Budgeting the Nest, Legal Beagle, PocketSense and Zacks.