Many people will agree that using the phrase “It’s how we’ve always done it,” is likely to end up causing more harm than good within a business setting. In truth, most successful companies take time to review and analyse their processes to practice continuous process improvement. In essence, small improvements along the way can produce full-scale benefits over time.
We’ll take a look at what continuous process improvement stands for, how to implement a continuous improvement model and why it is so imperative to do so.
Continuous process improvement is defined as, “The ongoing improvement of products, services or processes through incremental and breakthrough improvements.”
It doesn’t only mean that a business should make changes along the way when things aren’t working smoothly. Instead, continuous process improvement is an actual type of work style that is designed to continuously review results and rapidly adopt new measures when deemed necessary. The keyword here is continuous because ultimately broad-scale change and progress stem from small steps along the way that are all geared towards optimisation.
For some, it may be easy to conflate continuous process improvement as equivalent to other lean methodologies, including Kaizen and Six Sigma, for example. While these frameworks help to improve processes along the way, they can live inside the practice of continuous process improvement, but they are not the same.
Two main philosophies exist for continuous process improvement - formalised and adaptive. Formalised continuous process improvement is typically in line with Six Sigma, in which you have a set of techniques that are enacted for a quantifiable financial return. Adaptive continuous process improvement may pull from lean methodologies and approach improving processes on a case-by-case basis.
As one of the most popular tools for continuous process improvement, many rely on the plan-do-check-act (PDCA) cycle. This stands for:
Identify an opportunity for change.
Implement the change on a small scale to test.
Review results by analysing data to determine if the change was successful. One of the easiest ways to approach this step is by leveraging a data automation software solution that can showcase real-time data and analytics as processes run their cycles.
If the change proves successful based on the data, then it’s time to implement it on a broader scale. If it wasn’t as effective as hoped for, later only, try again!
Data automation software can play a role in every step of the PDCA cycle. Beginning with a process map, these tools can help to visualise how a process runs and identify gaps for improvement. Then, you can use software tools as a sandbox to test or forecast how changes will impact the entire organisation. Once you’ve assessed data and results of the test, it may be time to roll out the improvement. Automation solutions can do this immediately when they are enacted to carry out processes automatically.
Rolling out changes within an organisation can be costly, timely and risky. But, when you use automation tools, you can solve these many risks because you can map out processes, use version control, and has forecasting models to predict how the change will impact the business. In this way, you can easily roll back or roll forward continuous process improvement without causing harm.
It’s common for the word continuous and continuous to be used interchangeably. However, they do have a slight variation in meaning, as defined here:
The main goal of continuous process improvement is to provide higher value overall for a business. While it’s always desirable to achieve efficiency, that could come at the cost of decreased quality, if the change is implemented without a close eye or too quickly. One of the main benefits of continuous process improvement is that it happens incrementally.
For any organisation, there will be a need to improve processes across departments. But, there are always going to be constraints, whether it be in the form of time, money or resources. That’s why many companies approach continuous process improvement across events and use Value Stream Mapping to do so.
Value Stream Mapping helps to identify what is happening, what changes can feasibly occur and how you’ll be able to measure outcomes. When businesses break up their inner workings by events, it’s noticeable how interconnected processes are within the overarching system. This way, when one process is altered, it often necessitates change for the next and so on.
Continuous improvement doesn’t come from one person per se. Yet, it does call for executives and managers to support a culture of continuous process improvement and empower employees to take the initiative.
In this way, those “on the ground” can point out where improvements can be made and feel supported to make suggestions.
To engrain these sentiments within the company culture, management can direct the team to:
Continuous process improvement can be applied to various techniques. Here’s a look at some of the most common methods to consider:
Business Process Mapping: A business process map, or flowchart, is used to represent how and why your processes exist visually. When you outline a business process by using a diagram or business process mapping solution within an automation tool, you can quickly pinpoint the steps that are not working as well as they could be. Then, you can apply continuous process improvement to make necessary changes.
PDCA: As outlined above, the PDCA cycle stands for Plan, Do, Check, Act. It was first created for quality control, but it’s become one of the most popular methods for continuous process improvement.
DMAIC: DMAIC stands for Define, Measure, Analyse, Improve and Control. It happens as follows:
Root Cause Analysis: Gather a small team to conduct root cause analysis, or to identify where problems are occurring within a process. This requires creating the right side, performing analysis, and assigning roles to each team member to make sure that analysis moves forward. Once the solution has been designed, it will take time to implement the new process.
No matter what methodology you choose to implement to practice continuous process improvement, the overall principles remain unchanged.
These values exist at the core of CPI:
If you look at organisations like a car, then the engine can be considered its processes. How you position the engine within the hood of the vehicle will impact its performance. Continuous process improvement is the framework in which all your organisation’s processes and people reside. It involves creating an environment in which employees feel engaged, empowered and enthusiastic about suggesting ideas that will make the car perform better.
These changes are not a one and done deal, but rather, they rely on the consistent oversight of an organisation’s processes. With small, incremental and measurable improvements, the overall business will lean towards outcomes that can provide the most significant possible value to all stakeholders.