In life and business, nothing is static. It’s been proven time and again that companies who fail to improve are doomed to fail. So leaders simply have to be in the business of continuous improvement. That means fully investing in making things better on an ongoing basis—not just maintaining the status quo.
Continuous improvement can take many forms: process improvement, behavior improvement, product improvement, etc. But, while it’s simple in theory, it’s far from a regular practice for most leaders.
As I’ve discussed before, most leaders have a reactive habit. They focus on solving problems or “plugging holes” in the here and now—and that can eat up a lot of bandwidth.
A mindset shift has to happen if leaders want to help their businesses—and individual team members—become more efficient and effective.
This is at the core of what it means to be a true leader—helping the company, and the people within it, reach their full potential on an ongoing basis, regardless of if circumstances necessitate a change.
So, how is this done? There are many continuous improvement frameworks that exist, and even entire industries, like BPM, that were built to support the theory, but I find it helps to start with the fundamentals and build an approach that works for you.
Here, I’ve boiled down three frameworks that I see as the most pertinent, including the best features of each, for you to use as the basis of your own process.
Okay, this is more of a philosophical approach than a framework, but it’s an important starting point. Kaizen is a Japanese approach to continuous improvement based on the idea that small, ongoing improvements—when made by every company member collectively—result in bigger, more profound business improvement overall. The “five S’s” of the Kaizen approach are guidelines meant to keep people at every level of the organization in the same efficient mindset:
- Seiri (sort out) – All items should be sorted by priorities, and extemporaneous things and thoughts are literally kept out of the way.
- Sedition (to organize) – Every item should have its place and be kept there.
- Seiso (shine the workplace) – The workplace must be decluttered.
- Seiketsu – Seiketsu (standardize) – Organizations must have standardized rules and policies for employees to follow.
- Shitsuke (self-discipline) – Employees must follow the rules established consistently.
What I like about this framework: Its emphasis on the collective. In Japan, this approach transformed the entire manufacturing industry. It’s a reminder that, when pursuing improvement, the change itself does not have to be massive. When adopted at a large scale, continuous small improvements to behavior or process can have a massive impact. The opposite is also true: a major change adopted by only a few people or one team can hardly hope to have the same effect. Look to what can improve the many, not the few.
A good resource for learning more: The Five S’s in ‘Kaizen.’
2. The Deming Cycle
This is where we get a bit more scientific. Dr. W. Edwards Deming actually inspired the Kaizen approach when he brought his highly logical method for continuous improvement to Japan. Deming advocated a four-step process to continuously improve the organization based on the scientific method. It’s summarized as follows:
- Plan – Define your desired outcome, how you will measure it, and hypothesize what needs to change to reach it.
- Do – Implement the hypothesized changes iteratively to test their effectiveness and document the process.
- Study – Determine if the changes actually resulted in the desired outcomes. If so, why? If not, why not?
- Act – Implement the successful changes at a larger scale, track performance data on an ongoing basis, and incorporate viable improvements into the company DNA. Use these results to inform your next improvements.
What I like about this framework: It’s simple to follow and encourages consideration of the nuances that go into continuous improvement. Not every change will be successful, but what’s most important is not only to determine if something was successful but why it drove improvement or why it did not. The information gathered from one improvement effort should never be wasted or forgotten but instead documented and used to inform further improvement scenarios.
A good resource for learning more: How to Use the Deming Cycle for Continuous Quality Improvement.
This approach is at the center of the famed Lean Six Sigma method. This approach emphasizes the discovery and understanding of what needs improving. For that reason, it’s best applied to the wholesale improvement of systems or processes that are complex or where the root cause of inefficiency or deficiency isn’t immediately apparent. The steps involved are:
- Define – Set a charter for your improvement effort that defines your end client and their needs.
- Measure – Understand the magnitude of the problem and gather data on lead time and quality factors that will become the basis of solution evaluation.
- Analyze – Engage in a focused study of the process that needs improvement to fully understand the problem before prescribing a solution.
- Improve – Refine solutions and implement them. Confirm, with data, where there has been a measurable improvement.
- Control – Develop a plan to sustain the current solution and improvement and track it so that any loss in efficiency or quality can trigger intervention.
What I like about this framework: Its emphasis on understanding the root problem. While it may be tempting to jump at the first solution presented, recognize that you can spare a lot of time, money, and future disappointment by ensuring that the process in question is fully understood before implementing a plan to improve it. Another way to fast-track this is by making sure you bring a diverse group of “experts” in the process or product you want to change into the room for solutioning.
A good resource for learning more: DMAIC – The Five Phases of Lean Six Sigma.
You don’t have to implement these frameworks as written. The important thing to note is the critical steps they have in common:
- Identify an opportunity for improvement. Remember, a big opportunity or a small opportunity at a large scale can have an equally magnitudinous impact.
- Learn what has shaped the current state, and use data to establish baselines against which you can measure success.
- Put forward a plan to adjust. A pilot may be the best approach to test an adjustment before rolling it out more broadly.
- Implement and monitor the results. It’s not enough to consider an improvement made. The improvement must be sustained.
- Repeat. Continue improving and committing learnings to the company “memory” so that past improvement efforts can inform future initiatives.
When you do this continuously and pursue improvement as a discipline, it becomes an act of innovation and prevention, not just intervention.
The tricky thing about continuous improvement is that because it’s highly logical, it seems simple. And it can be. But more often than not, it requires practice and coaching for leaders to understand the methods and tools at their disposal and implement them properly to fuel truly transformational change.
This is one of the most important skills that you can empower the leaders in your organization with. It unlocks their ability to foster the potential of others and develop the potential of the organization as a whole to drive new growth.
Contact me for a free consultation about coaching your team to embrace a mindset and methodology for continuous improvement. Done right, it’s truly the gift that keeps on giving.