Any time you can improve elements such as collaboration, costs, or results, these efforts can translate into creating greater value for your customers. This is why both lean and agile management philosophies emphasize the importance of continuous improvement in order to increase efficiency in business operations.
Continuous improvement is a methodology that companies use to refine their processes, resources, products, and services to streamline workflows and reduce waste. This concept stems from processes used in manufacturing to streamline procedures and increase productivity.
Today, organizations across all industries use continuous improvement techniques to refine their operations, enhance their processes, and reach their goals. Accordingly, this article will cover philosophies, examples, and the benefits of following a continuous improvement process
Continuous improvement philosophies
The lifecycle of any continuous improvement philosophy is a four-phase process:
Plan. Identify opportunities for improvement and develop your change strategies.
Do. Implement and test the change on a small scale.
Check. Use data to analyze the results of your change effort to assess whether it made a difference.
Act. If the change did not work, begin the continuous improvement cycle again. If the change was successful, you can implement it on a wider scale and analyze those results.
There are several continuous improvement philosophies to choose from, giving you the ability to customize the tools for your business purposes. You can treat continuous improvement as a loose set of guidelines or adopt more formal management approaches, including:
Agile. Agile planning uses short work sprints to enhance project outcomes. At the end of each sprint, teams meet to review what went well and identify opportunities for improvement. This means that every sprint iteration is an opportunity for continuous improvement.
Kanban. Kanban focuses on continuous improvement through small, incremental changes to existing processes. This highly visual approach encourages collaboration in order to improve workflows and productivity.
Six Sigma. The Six Sigma method helps organizations decrease variation in business processes to amplify performance. It facilitates continuous improvement by empowering teams to measure, analyze, improve, and control their work processes.
Total quality management (TQM). Total quality management (TQM) includes all members of a company in its improvement efforts. These efforts are focused on previously defined common goals. Continual process improvement is a cornerstone of TQM, which leverages analytical and creative strategies to improve and exceed the expectations of customers and other key stakeholders.
Benefits of continuous improvement for businesses
The continuous improvement cycle is ongoing, enabling teams to always look for new ways to eliminate waste and optimize workflows. As an endless cyclical process, continuous improvement requires regular monitoring and evaluation to ensure that changes are effective.
In addition to creating greater value for customers, adopting a continuous improvement mindset can result in the following benefits:
Streamlined workflows. Many workflows include unnecessary steps because no one has paused to examine their value. When you apply continuous improvement strategies, it’s easier to see and eliminate inefficient processes because you take the time to analyze and assess each step. This ultimately means you can get more done in less time, thereby increasing productivity.
Greater employee engagement. Continuous improvement empowers team members to proactively solve problems they encounter in their work. As individuals drive changes in their tasks and departments, everyone is more engaged in creating and increasing organizational value.
Reduced costs. How much money is spent on technology and processes that do not add value to your organization? Continuous improvement always seeks to find and eliminate waste, which helps reduce costs. Organizations also reap cost and time savings when steps that do not add value to work efforts are eliminated.
Use cases for continuous improvement processes
The most successful organizations are those that constantly seek new ways to improve their quality and efficiency. These ongoing efforts to improve processes can consist of smaller changes that adjust the workflow or bigger breakthrough improvements that drive innovation.
Continuous improvement has been fundamental to the success of numerous well-known companies, including the following:
Toyota. Everyone who works at Toyota, from C-suite executives to shop-floor employees, participates in continuous improvement strategies. Through required team-building training, employees are challenged to seek out and solve problems to grow in their job roles. With this culture of continuous improvement, employees generate more than a million ideas for process improvement annually.
Amazon. To drive efficiency and exceed customer expectations, Amazon places a heavy emphasis on continuous improvement. For example, its warehouse operations leverage machines and robots for low-level tasks, enabling personnel to focus on more complex tasks that have higher value. Every fulfillment center has a dedicated continuous improvement manager to ensure that these practices are fundamental to the workflow.
Disney. From its parks to its cruises and everything in between, Disney leverages continuous improvement strategies to enhance its customers’ experience. Work methods are heavily standardized, making it easy for employees to focus on the task at hand rather than figuring out uncertainties or determining how projects should be handled. By celebrating improvements in real time and at annual conferences, Disney promotes an overall culture of improvement.
Visual tools for continuous improvement
The best way to facilitate continuous improvement techniques is to leverage visualization tools. Since 65% of the population identifies as visual learners, tools such as mind maps, diagrams, and flowcharts make it easier to implement and manage continuous improvement strategies.
For example, a workflow diagram can help teams find ways to execute tasks more efficiently. A swim lane diagram shows a process from start to finish, including who is responsible for what tasks in each step. By identifying bottlenecks, redundancies, and wasteful steps in processes, you can improve the way work gets done at your organization.
MindManager® helps organizations bring clarity and structure to their continuous improvement efforts through an array of customizable maps, diagrams, and flowcharts.