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Monday, August 28, 2023

The 10 Rules of Continuous Improvement

The most successful companies are never satisfied with the status quo. They constantly have their eye on the next innovation, the next level of performance. They know the importance of continuous improvement in all areas of the business.

Even if things are going really well, people at successful organizations are looking at what could be improved upon so that they can perform better. They are finding ways to work smarter, not harder, in order to be more efficient and profitable. The most successful companies are always innovating and developing new ways to deliver top-notch quality to their customers.

But this kind of behavior doesn’t just happen. Sure, some people have a natural drive to keep improving their skills and the results they produce at work. But many people prefer to stay in their comfort zones, never questioning the way things are done.

Continuous improvement is an ongoing process of identifying, analyzing, and making incremental improvements to systems, processes, products, or services. Its purpose is to drive efficiency, improve quality, and value delivery while minimizing waste, variation, and defects. The continual improvement process is driven by ongoing feedback, collaboration, and data.

Let’s look at 10 rules for effective continuous improvement:

1. Be Open Minded

An open mind leads to new possibilities. New possibilities lead to new thoughts and experiences. To have an open mind means being flexible and adaptive to new experiences and ideas.  Having an open mind doesn’t mean accepting everything as truth, but rather being open to new possibilities. New thoughts and experiences lead to growth.

2. Start with the 3 “Actual” Rule

Continuous improvement starts with the three “Actual” Rule.

        Go to the actual place where the process is performed.

        Talk to the actual people involved in the process and get the real facts.

        Observe and chart the actual process.

All too often, attempts are made to solve problems without knowing anything about or are not being familiar with a particular area or process -- resulting in a misdiagnosis or failed solution. Answers come from the floor, from the Gemba, where the condition occurs. You need to go to the real place and experience these conditions for yourself before being able to take the next steps.

3. Focus on Process Over People

The most successful organizations understand that the problem is not people failing to deliver, but that their organizational processes or systems need to be improved. If an organization really wants a continuous improvement effort focused on improving its business, it must celebrate the mistakes and errors that result from inadequate processes or systems so they can be analyzed and corrected. Enlightened organizations don’t look for someone to blame; they identify the problems that inevitably arise and encourage their people to expose these issues, rather than cover them up.

4. Don’t Seek Perfection, Try-storm

Don’t spend too much time talking about a solution, try it!! Try-storming encourages the rapid development and test of an idea rather than merely thinking about the possible solutions. It allows people to visualize, touch and further improve on an initial idea. It also models action rather than talk. Often in our desire to design the perfect Future State we forget that the best way to build a process that works is through the iterative process of trying, adjusting/correcting, and trying again.

The process is built on three basic principles:

  • It is not important to create perfect solutions.
  • Be action-oriented.
  • Keep solutions simple.

5. Creativity Before Capital

Don’t substitute money for thinking. In other words, before spending money on a typical solution (buying equipment, hiring staff, working overtime), try using existing equipment and employees.

In reality, even creative solutions may require some investment. Yet, often that investment is quite small in comparison to more traditional approaches. As Lean practitioners, it is our job to minimize waste in all that we do – and that includes the cost associated with solutions.

6. Problems are Opportunities

The workplace is full of problems and we are expected to solve them. Problems often stir up the emotions of everyone involved. When a problem occurs, instead of first exploring how to get the problem to go away, first stop and ask yourself: What is the opportunity here? This is the key to innovative problem solving. It’s understanding that the problems you face are opportunities — no matter how frustrating they appear to be at first. Innovative thinking on how to solve a difficult problem begins when you view problems as opportunities — when you break the barriers of limited thinking that we all have.

7. Focus on the Root Cause, Not the Symptoms

It’s very easy to get caught up in the symptoms of the problem and most problems are incorrectly attempted by suppressing these symptoms. We should resist this temptation! When we encounter a symptom, it should serve as a prompt to dig deeper to get at the real root causes for an issue. There are a number of methods of root cause analysis, including failure mode analysis, fault tree analysis, and fishbone diagrams. For diagnosing performance issues, one of the simplest and most effective methods is the "5 Whys," which is attributed to Taiichi Ohno and his Toyota Production System. This technique simply requires us to ask why repeatedly until root causes are uncovered.

8. Rely on Data, Not Opinions

As the legendary engineer W. Edwards Deming put it, “Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion.” Without insight into data, people make decisions based on instinct, speculation, or prevalent theory. People are at risk of acting on biases or false assumptions. Now, data driven decision making involves collecting data, performing analysis, and basing decisions on insights derived from that analysis. This provides for accountability and transparency. Basing decisions on data allows the logic behind determinations to be transparent and provides stronger evidence to support those decisions. Data provides context and knowledge.

9. Practice Respect

Show respect” is perhaps the most valuable rule, as people are the goal, not simply the means to an end. Improvements are accomplished by people, not processes. Processes ought to be designed to support people in their accomplishment of specific objectives. Ultimately this means developing people to be who they can be. One tremendous side effect of that development is greatly increased capability in fulfilling their roles, which leads to greater efficiency in accomplishing improvement.

10. There is no destination on the road to improvement

Continuous improvement is a journey that never ends. There will always be a gap between where you are (current state) and where you would like to be (True North). Since there will always be a gap, there will always be an opportunity to improve. The road to continual improvement can be a rocky one with many ups and downs. Failure will occur. It’s ok, the purpose is learning, and we learn through experimentation. Trying new approaches, exploring new methods and testing new ideas for improving the various processes is exercise for the mind.

Adopting a culture of continuous improvement can benefit both you, your team and your business. Finding a suitable way to begin your never-ending quest toward it doesn’t need to keep you awake at night. Why don’t you start by implementing these 10 rules in order to set yourself up for all the benefits that come hand in hand with improving continuously!

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