A continuous improvement process (abbreviated as CIP or CI), is an ongoing effort to improve products, services, or processes. These efforts can seek "incremental" improvement over time or "breakthrough" improvement all at once. Delivery (customer valued) processes are constantly evaluated and improved in the light of their efficiency, effectiveness and flexibility.
Some see CIPs as a meta-process for most management systems (such as business process management, quality management, project management, and program management). W. Edwards Deming, a pioneer of the field, saw it as part of the 'system' whereby feedback from the process and customer were evaluated against organisational goals. The fact that it can be called a management process does not mean that it needs to be executed by 'management'; but rather merely that it makes decisions about the implementation of the delivery process and the design of the delivery process itself.
A broader definition is that of the Institute of Quality Assurance who defined "continuous improvement as a gradual never-ending change which is: '... focused on increasing the effectiveness and/or efficiency of an organisation to fulfill its policy and objectives. It is not limited to quality initiatives. Improvement in business strategy, business results, customer, employee and supplier relationships can be subject to continual improvement. Put simply, it means ‘getting better all the time.' " (Wikipedia)
If you’re not familiar with continuous improvement (CI), it may sound like a soft goal — something nice to do, but not very clearly defined. Actually, CI is a very real and effective methodology for driving major long-term and sustainable improvements. Teams can initiate and achieve success in this area by abiding by the following specific principles of continuous improvement:
1. Focus on the Customer
Whatever your processes and products are, you will be making changes and trying to improve to meet your customers’ needs. For continuous improvement efforts, these customers are often the next process in line in your workflow. Your customers may also be external users, your organization’s shareholders, or even the community at large. As you identify areas where change and improvement are needed, you must:
Identify the specific customer sets you are serving,
Understand their needs,
Balance and prioritize, if appropriate, and
Strive to deliver desired improvements.
You will be making multiple small changes, but also incorporating long-term thinking to ensure you strive toward visionary objectives for customers’ current and future needs.
2. Use Workers’ Ideas
Continuous improvement does not come from top management, leadership teams, or outside consultants. Instead, it comes from the workers who deal with processes daily and know their operations well. Asking the question, “How could you improve this step of the process?” often will yield creative ideas that save minutes or dollars, make the operations safer, or eliminate unnecessary steps.
The challenge, historically, has been to ask that question of the people who know the process best and to appreciate their brain power. This requires giving people time and space to generate and develop ideas, not just fight fires or perform repetitive tasks all day long. It also entails empowering workers to take ownership and be engaged in implementation rather than handing off ideas for others to bring to fruition.
3. Ensure Leadership Support
While worker ideas are the primary content for CI, leadership support is also essential. Leaders won’t necessarily generate improvement ideas and mandate tasks, but they do have many responsibilities for CI, including:
Aligning goals across processes,
Sharing customer needs,
Busting barriers, and
A leader who does not support CI activities will quickly crush enthusiasm and reduce creative efforts by workers.
4. Drive Incremental Change
For continuous improvement, incremental change is delivered in small amounts on a frequent basis. This results in numerous benefits:
Small changes can add up to a large impact.
Small changes are generally less expensive and have a lower risk to implement than large changes.
People adapt more easily to small changes than to large changes.
Small levels of change enable a faster rate of change, so outcomes can stay ahead of technology or other considerations that are also transforming.
Small changes can be delivered more quickly than large changes, yielding faster benefits.
Addressing small elements of a complex problem may reveal simple solutions to the bigger problem.
Just like compound interest, continuous improvement compounds over time, giving greater long-term benefits.
Small changes offer constant assessment, providing the ability for course correction as needed.
5. Utilize Fact-Based, Measurable Methods and Monitoring
Continuous improvement is not just trying hard or giving 110%. No matter how often you hear that expression, it’s still ridiculous; a person simply cannot give 110%. When you make continuous improvement changes, you need to measure where you started and where you have arrived to show that you really have made an improvement.
If desired results are achieved, continue and make improvements permanent. If not, assess and modify as needed to get on track. Continuous improvement enables experimentation with control. Ideally, continuous improvement efforts show visible and immediate results. When possible, quantify and monetize the results to demonstrate the value of the work to the overall organization.
6. Set Goals, Incorporate Feedback, and Deliver Reinforcement
Organizations generally have annual or long-term goals for overall results; to some extent, annual compensation ties to the achievement of those goals. However, to engage in continuous improvement, set short-term goals or project objectives related to behaviors or results.
As each of these short-term goals are achieved and reinforced, intrinsically or extrinsically, participants are motivated to do more. As a result, continuous improvement becomes a self-reinforcing cycle. Success breeds success.
7. Incorporate Teamwork
Although individuals can (and do) have continuous improvement successes, the team environment is ideal for maximum CI achievements. Synergy of ideas, shared accountabilities, social reinforcement, and even healthy competition can drive teams to achieve that self-reinforcing cycle.
When thinking about continuous improvement, we can take advice from the great quality guru W. Edwards Deming, who said that learning and improving on a regular basis are essential to survival. But, the concept of continuous improvement isn’t limited to industry or science. Paraphrasing the esteemed artist, Vincent van Gogh: “Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.”