Enhance Productivity with the Continual Improvement Process

Enhance Productivity with the Continual Improvement Process

By Henri Gisclard-Biondi
Published: 1/20/21

How to define continual improvement? If you have an interest in quality management, you probably already have an answer in mind.

This article will introduce you to this concept and guide you through the principles set by Edwards Deming on how to reduce inefficiencies.

What is continual improvement?


Continual and continuous improvement are two similar concepts. The latter describes a never-ending process, while continual improvement refers to repeated but not uninterrupted cycles.

However, both are associated with ongoing improvement. This means taking incremental steps towards process improvement.

Why adopt continual improvement?

Continual improvement is a process designed to:

  • bring down the number of defects and errors
  • reduce waste and costs, especially for low value-added tasks
  • find opportunities to improve products, services, or processes
  • improve customer satisfaction
  • Increase competitiveness

The successful implementation of a culture of improvement among your team members will make your company more agile.

You can find the best way to foster improvement over time below.

The Four Principles of Edwards Deming

The Deming Cycle is the best way to sum up its author’s principles: Plan Do Check Act. The PDCA cycle was forged by Dr. Deming in the 90s, as a way to lay the foundations of continual improvement.

Plan Do Check Act© asq.org

P for Plan

For this first step, you should define performance metrics. These should follow the SMART principles. A good KPI should be:

  • Specific enough to be clearly linked to the target
  • Measurable in a quantifiable way
  • Attainable realistically
  • Relevant to the processes you’re trying to improve
  • Time-bound to the task deadline or period

Analysing these metrics will help you construct an evidence-based roadmap. Careful planning before the implementation phase will help you choose the best path to improvement.

✅  How to put this principle into practice

You should invite everyone to question the existing processes. Avoiding a stagnating status quo is essential.

D for Do

After you’ve defined your strategy, it’s time to implement corrective actions to optimize your workflows. This step requires tasks to be assigned and tracked efficiently. You can use project management tools to help you in this task.

✅  How to put this principle into practice

It’s better to improve your process by 80% today than by 100% tomorrow. Postponing change would also slow down its beneficial effects.

C for Check

You should track the KPIs defined during the planning phase to make sure bottlenecks are really reduced by your changes.

Use dashboards to keep an eye on all the relevant metrics to act accordingly.

✅  How to put this principle into practice

See for yourself what goes on the field. This way, you can better understand the underlying difficulties that could explain a failure to reach the objectives. This is more efficient than looking for scapegoats.

A for Act

If there is a gap between your expected breakthroughs and your KPIs, you should once again correct your strategy. Learning from your failures is part of improvement techniques.

Be sure to communicate your decisions to the relevant stakeholders.

✅  How to put this principle into practice

Think about how to do it rather than why it can’t be done. This positive attitude will help you think creatively, and will motivate your team.

👉  Our tip: people have natural tendency to focus on the “Do” phase. This is because looking at progress creates a feeling of achievement and satisfaction. However, overlooking the other steps of the Deming Cycle undermines the global success of the continual improvement approach.

How to implement continual improvement

Tips for a successful implementation of continual improvement

  • Make sure managing directors are on board with the project. This is essential to its success. If managers don’t feel included or are reluctant to act, they will not make themselves available and won’t cooperate.
  • Include all co-workers too. Working in a collaborative fashion will ensure minimal resistance to change. If team members are part of the decision making, they will be more inclined to take initiatives and share ideas.
  • Stay concrete and focused. The goal of continual improvement should be to make visible changes to real problems. You should decide based on measurable data taken directly from the field.

Alternatives to the Deming Cycle

The continuous improvement model could be defined as a state of mind. However, for best results, it is important to have efficient methods. Here is a quick look at the different approaches you can choose from, depending on the needs of your organisation.

The Kaizen Method

The Kaizen Method advocates for incremental improvement based on questioning the status quo. It relies on collective intelligence and collaboration.

The Ishikawa Diagram

The Ishikawa diagram or 5M method is useful for identifying inefficiencies. It is often used in business process management.

The 5S Method

The 5S Method was designed by Toyota engineers to improve working conditions. It has five founding principles:

  • Sort, which means removing all unnecessary items
  • Set in order, meaning each item should be put at the right place for optimal use. This makes for smoother workflows.
  • Shine, which means cleaning out equipment and the workplace on a regular basis.
  • Standardise, which means setting up standard procedures. These ensure the 5S principles will be followed and become a daily routine.
  • Self-discipline, meaning that employees should follow these principles without being told. This could be achieved through training sessions and regular audits.

The Lean Six Sigma

The Lean Six Sigma method is great if your work is based around projects. It is complementary to other lean management methods such as DMAIC.

DMAIC stands for the five steps of an efficient continual improvement approach for managers:

  • Define the scope and nature the problem or inefficiency
  • Measure your progress by tracking SMART KPIs
  • Analyse your data to find out whether the solution was effective
  • Improve the existing process with this insight
  • Check if the plan was carried out properly, and question your solution again

The just-in-time method

The just-in-time method comes from the logistics sector. It is based around the 5 zeros:

  • Zero defect
  • Zero paper
  • Zero inventory
  • Zero delay
  • Zero breakdown

The agile methodologies family tree is sprawling. All of them are based on implementing iterative improvements and progressive change. You can find a summary of all these different methods in the table below to help you decide.

MethodPrinciplesCompany Type
Kaizen MethodCollaboration & team intelligenceAll
5M or Ishikawa DiagramIdentifying the root cause of the problemAll
5SRearranging the workplace for better workflowsAll
Six Sigma, DMAICCustomer reviews, structured problem solvingAll
Just-in-timeZero waste, zero inventoryIndustrial production, logistics

Which agile method should you choose?

It is up to you to choose the right one for your needs according to your current workflows and trade. You can take the following steps to find the best fit.

Assess your existing processes

  • Which are they?
  • How many of them currently exist?
  • Are they all relevant to your activity?

Share your processes with each team

  • Make sure everyone understands the stakes of your business
  • Business process mapping could help

Use adapted tools

Summing up

Continual improvement takes time. It is based around small, incremental changes that could seem insignificant at times. However, your team can benefit from both breakthrough improvements, as well as smaller ones.

Sustained efforts towards performance are the best way to nourish the right mindset. Your team and business as a whole will benefit from questioning existing processes.

While there are many paths to positive change, all require looking for the root cause of problems with a thorough data-driven analysis.

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