Continuous improvement sounds daunting. How can something endlessly improve? Surely there’s a limit, right? Well, yes and no.
The real limit to continuous improvement isn’t what you’d imagine — that the project or process has reached perfection. The real limit to continuous improvement is momentum.
Continually improving something takes time and effort — and those who aren’t familiar with Lean Management and the continuous improvement process have a hard time keeping things moving.
To make it work for you, you need to understand what it is and why it’s useful. You also need to learn the techniques that will help you implement it and stick to it. Here’s everything you need to know about continuous improvement.
What is continuous improvement?
Continuous improvement is fairly self-explanatory: it’s a quest for perfection — or as close as humanly possible.
It’s a fundamental part of Lean Management, which, for those unacquainted with the concept, is a production method taken from Toyota’s 1930 operating model “The Toyota Way”. When we’re talking about continual improvement in this context, it’s called ‘Kaizen.’
Continuous improvement isn’t a state that’s ever reached: processes and projects are seen as evolving things rather than something with an endpoint.
What is Kaizen?
Kaizen is a two-pronged approach that seeks to improve processes by (a) removing waste and (b) enhancing activities that generate value for the customer.
Kaizen was first introduced in Japanese businesses immediately after World War II, most notably as part of The Toyota Way. From its roots in manufacturing, it has since branched out into all kinds of environments and industries.
Kaizen is the Sino-Japanese word for “improvement”.
The seven types of waste — and how to eliminate each one
As we’ve mentioned above, eliminating waste is a big part of Kaizen. But what counts as waste?
According to Lean Management, there are three types of waste, known colloquially as the three ‘Ms’:
- Muda: any activity that consumes resources without adding value to the customer. Lean Management identifies seven different types of waste in this context: transport, inventory, motion, waiting, overproduction, over-processing, and defects.
- Mura: waste through unevenness or inconsistency that causes customers or clients to hurry or wait. It stops your tasks from flowing smoothly and can create many of the seven wastes detailed above.
- Muri: waste through overburdening workers or suppliers in a way that forces them to work beyond their capacity, creating unnecessary stress. It’s usually caused by Mura.
Three continuous improvement techniques you need to know
Now that you know what the three Ms are, you’ll want to know how to tackle each one. In Lean Management, there are three main routes to achieving this.
- Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA)
- Root Cause Analysis
PDCA (which stands for Plan-Do-Check-Act) is an offshoot of Lean. While it was made famous by Toyota, the concept was actually created by legendary management consultant Dr. William Edwards Deming in the 1950s (which is why it’s sometimes called the ‘Deming Wheel.’)
His goal was to create a framework for working out how a product or service might not be meeting a customer’s needs. Enter PDCA.
PDCA is a four-stage, iterative approach to problem-solving. First, the problem owner proposes an issue. Then they (or their team) bring forward solutions, review them, analyze the outcomes, and implement the ones that work.
It’s a powerful mechanism that helps teams solve challenges, prevent repeated mistakes, and continually develop processes, goods, and services at all organizational levels.
Define the processes that should lead you towards your desired results. Setting objectives is a key part of achieving improvement.
If you’re struggling to find out where the issues are, a fault tree analysis can help you work out the root cause of the problem.
Next, you need to implement your plan on a small scale.
Next, you need to measure your results against your objectives.
If your analysis shows you your plan was a success, you can implement it on a larger scale and make it the new standard. If not, go back to the planning stage.
Root Cause Analysis
Many of us take a hurried approach when it comes to problem-solving, rather than addressing the issue at source. But rather than rushing towards a quick (and often ineffective) fix, it’s far more efficient to take a breather and address it methodically with a tried-and-tested process.
A Root Cause Analysis (RCA) is a Lean Management technique that allows you to achieve Kaizen by iteratively drilling down into issues. Your analysis is considered a success once you eliminate the adverse effect after removing the cause.
Often, issues are more complex than they initially seem — which is why you may need to run a few RCA iterations before you have success.
There are a few different types of RCA, but they all mostly do the same thing.
This is where you reach the root cause of a problem by delving a little deeper each time. Start with the question ‘why did x happen,’ and then ask ‘why is that?’ five or more times to unearth more details.
Fault Tree Analysis
A Fault Tree Analysis (FTA) gives you a visual representation of a process from start to finish. Seeing all of this information in a diagram helps you pinpoint weaknesses and identify the causes of failure.
An FTA can also help you proactively look at a project and identify areas where things might go wrong by logically guiding you through a series of hypothetical events.
A3 Problem Solving Technique
First employed at Toyota, the A3 Problem Solving Technique is a collaborative, systematic process that uses continuous improvement to reach the root cause of a problem. It involves seven steps that guide you from the problem’s background through follow up and includes a fault tree analysis as one of the stages.
The other two approaches above are focused on rooting out problems. Kanban focuses on continual improvement in a more general sense. It’s built around six core principles, which all work towards eliminating waste.
- Practice 1 – visualizing your work
- Practice 2 – limiting work in progress
- Practice 3 – managing flow
- Practice 4 – making process policies explicit
- Practice 5 – creating and implementing feedback loops
- Practice 6 – improving collaboratively
Visualizing the workflow helps you and your team limit work in progress and manage flow — two major components when it comes to minimizing Mura (aka waste through inconsistency).
Kanban boards can be created on a real whiteboard or digitally via your project management software. It usually consists of three columns: Requested, In Progress, and Done. Each task passes through each stage before it’s considered complete.
Kanban boards also show you how much work each individual has, helping you limit tasks that can be ‘in progress.’ This added visibility will help you eliminate bottlenecks, stop waste through overburden (Muri), and limit interruptions due to poor workflow management.
Continuous improvement tools
Kaizen is an endless quest for perfection, but don’t let that daunt you: it’s all about small changes that, over time, result in substantial benefits.
To get the best results, you need your team and organization behind you. One of the best ways to do this is to use project management tools that make it easier to track tasks and measure results. Tracking not only helps teams improve as they go, but it also helps them more confidently forecast delivery estimates in the future.
The proof is in the pudding, as the saying goes — and if you can show people the impact of their efforts, they’ll have a better understanding of how continuous improvement works, and why it’s so essential for the team.