Continuous Improvement

Continuous improvement is a kind of holy grail for businessmen ... how do we keep making the organisation better.

Firstly, we should ask … Is continuous improvement possible?

Well, yes and no. “No”, because from time to time, it is important to consolidate change and improved performance, to make sure you lock in the gains that a change has brought about. You can then start to improve again. So it is a repeating process … but there are those times when you must make sure you – and everyone else – knows what you are supposed to be doing to realise the benefits of what you have just improved.

So, how do we set about a process on continuous improvement?

Well, of course, there are lots of ‘methodologies’ out there … and an amazing number of consultants who will implement them for you. (Of course many of them will come with their ‘pet’ solution and try to make it fit your organisation … rather than diagnosing what you need and delivering that.)

So, you could try ‘Lean’ or ‘Business Process improvement’ or any one of a number of similar methodologies and approaches.

But I’m assuming you are a relatively small business … and a relatively ‘tight’ one. You don’t want to spend money unnecessarily ... and, luckily, you don’t have to.

All the methodologies simply offer some kind of structure to a process that essentially consists of:

· Diagnosis – what is wrong … or what do we want to try and improve?

· Development – what are the ideas we can think of to improve things?

· Implementation – how do we make the change?

Diagnosis is sometimes simple … when a problem is evident. (Sometimes the problem might be that people are ‘unhappy’ with something … even if you don’t think it’s a real problem, it is if it is affecting performance.) Sometimes we simply look systematically at all our processes.

(The reason we look at processes, rather than activities or jobs, is that there is no point in improving part of a process if we just run into a bottleneck further down the process. And ‘process’ is simply the set of activities that accomplishes one of our main tasks – the process of getting orders from customers, the process of executing that order, the process of delivery, and so on.

Look at a process … draw the major steps out on paper (it doesn’t matter whether you use a ‘proper’ flowcharting or process mapping technique, as long as you can understand what is going on) and annotate them showing how long it takes, who does it, what it costs (roughly) and so on.

Then ask yourself the following question :

Which are the most important activities in this process ... the ones that have the biggest effect on delivering value to our customers, the ones that cost us the most money?

Then, for each one, ask:

Why are we doing this? (How does it add to the value the customer receives from us?)

Could we do something else instead?

Could we do it in another way?

Why does that person or that team do it?

Why do we do it at that point in the process?

The aim is to eliminate activities from the process if we can. If we can’t eliminate them, we try to combine them? If we can’t combine them, we try to simplify them? If we can’t simplify them we try to do them for less money? And we try to do all of this without reducing – and preferably enhancing – the value the customer receives!

We ask questions … and we think hard about the answers. It’s a very simple – but very effective – process.

When we think we have some ideas worth pursuing, we interrogate them to see if they are technically, organisationally and financially feasible.

Will it work? What might stop it working?

Is this right for our organisation? Do we have the ability to make these changes?

What is the payback from any investment?

If we get positive answers, we set about planning the change? We plan … and prepare. We might need to train staff, get in new equipment (and get it working properly) or make a number of other changes. We must ‘set of on the right foot’ … if there are problems when we make the change, people can lose confidence. If we plan and execute well, things go smoothly and the change is seen to be a success.

Then we move on to the next process … with a success behind us … and with confidence we can do this. We can make continuous improvements … sometimes small, sometimes big … but lots of changes that make our organisation better ... and better.


Productivity is my 'bag' ... it is what I know about. I am President of the World Confederation of Productivity Science - and Director of the National Productivity Centre in the UK - go to this site for some good free resources and some (paid for but low price) e-learning on productivity. I also edit the International Journal of Productivity & Performance Management. My views on productivity and on learning (which I think are related) are su...

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