Planning for Continuous Improvement in the Workplace

Factory worker and supervisor checking product quality
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A Continuous Improvement Plan is a set of activities designed to bring gradual, ongoing improvement to products, services or processes through constant review, measurement and action. The Shewart Cycle, also known as the Deming Cycle of Plan, Do, Check, Act (PDCA) or an approach called Kaizen are two well known frameworks used to support continuous improvement.

Continuous improvement is a critical dimension of all major quality frameworks and methodologies, including Six Sigma, ISO and Baldrige.

 

Why Continuous Improvement?

Organizations dedicated to continuous improvement recognize the importance of these actions for strengthening quality, improving customer satisfaction and for improving efficiency, productivity and profits

Applications of Continuous Improvement:

In process intensive industries and applications, the continuous improvement program allows individuals and groups to identify inefficiencies or bottlenecks and to streamline processes minimizing time, effort and waste. Continuous improvement is inherent in the Toyota Production System or Lean methodologies and their use of Kaizen. 

In hardware product-centric applications, a program of continuous improvement based on customer feedback allows the manufacturer to improve product quality, enhance product capabilities in subsequent offerings and to identify opportunities to streamline manufacturing processes and reduce costs.

Service-focused industries look to continuous improvement approaches to improve efficiency and strengthen service delivery quality. From catering to car washes, these firms are measuring customer satisfaction and observing activities to identify opportunities to improve results. 

The theory and practice of continuous improvement is inherent in many software development activities and methodologies including waterfall and agile approaches.

In waterfall, a product is developed according to detailed specifications and the completed application is tested for bugs. The bugs are repaired and a new release is tested, with the expectation of a diminishing number of bugs over time. Agile methods incorporate shorter development cycles and continuous customer feedback, with subsequent releases improving in terms of capabilities, quality and performance.  

The Shewart Cycle:

The Shewart Cycle (PDCA) for is most often represented as a circle with no beginning or end, signifying that continuous improvement is a process that never stops. A simple description of the PDCA cycle is: 

  • Plan: identify an opportunity and create a plan to improve.
  • Do: test the change on a small scale where results can be observed and measured.
  • Check: evaluate the results of the test and summarize the lessons learned. 
  • Act: if the test worked, implement the change on a slightly larger scale and monitor results. 

Remember, the process is a cycle. If the test fails, repeat the process. If it works, monitor results and start over again with a new plan to promote additional improvements. The work of continuous improvement is never-ending. 

Kaizen:

Kaizen is a Japanese term that effectively stands for: "change for the better." Kaizen reflects the perspective that everything can be improved, even if incrementally.

Continuous incremental improvements over time are viewed as desirable and can translate to improved quality, reduced costs, simplified work processes, less waste and ultimately improved customer satisfaction and profits. Kaizen is a critical part of the broader Toyota Production System. 

Continuous Improvement is an Organization's Way of Life, Not Just a Program

The late quality guru, W. Edwards Deming preached that managers and organizations must have constancy of purpose: a deep and abiding dedication to constant, ongoing improvement to satisfy customers, beat competition and retain jobs. Deming's focus was on ensuring that continuous improvement was bred into the culture, not just something that was a momentary or occasional program.

He often criticized managers for acting short-sighted and focusing on the wrong measures, instead of investing for the long-term by focusing on meaningful measures of continuous improvement. 

Organizations that excel at continuous improvement incorporate it into their values, reflect it in their hiring and training, and account for it in their employee evaluation and compensation system. If you visit a firm that excels at this work, the artifacts of continuous improvement in every aspect of the culture. Continuous improvement is a way of life, not just a fad or program of the month. 

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Updated by Art Petty