We help business professionals continually examine their processes to discover and eliminate waste. Typically, this is accomplished by making small changes rather than implementing a large-scale alteration. By focusing on making things better without finding blame, project teams can take actions to reduce defects, remove activities which provide no value and improve customer satisfaction.
Continuous improvement processes feature a systems approach to improving the work flow in an organization. Typical phases of the model include an analysis phase to identify specific problems. During this phase, teams conduct brainstorming sessions and interviews to gather relevant information. In the next phase, the design phase, the project team determines what to do to remedy the problems. During the implementation phase, the team members responsible for carrying out the tasks take action. Finally, during the evaluation phase, team members monitor the outcome and determine if the adjustment to the process has produced the desired result.
Continuous improvement processes allow project team members to uncover problems and determine ways to fix them. Through careful analysis, team members can see how individual tasks impact a business’s overall process. Because project teams work closely together, work group conflicts can also be resolved as a part of the continuous improvement effort.
Project teams examine processes to identify their beginning and end points. The process’s beginning trigger starts when a team member performs an action based on input from a stakeholder, supplier or other work team. The ending trigger results in the process output passing on to the customer. Continuous improvement process activities examine each step to determine where problems exist. For example, an analysis of a sales process may include the following steps: the identification of customer needs; suggesting of products; convincing of the customer; negotiating of a price; and closing the sale. Creating a matrix to identify each step’s goal and output allows participants to identify any possible bottlenecks at each point.
Eliminating Root Causes
Not eliminating the root cause of a problem generally causes it to surface elsewhere. By questioning why things occur, project teams can design a plan to counteract a problem. Plans usually include a description of the problem and details about what should be done to remedy the situation. For example, if customer satisfaction rates decrease consistently for several months, a project team can create an action plan to increase customer satisfaction by 10 percent by the end of the year. By surveying dissatisfied customers, project members can learn more about the problem and determine how to fix it. Then, the project team can devise a solution and distribute it to all customers.
Determining if a continuous improvement process works involves using operational metrics to gauge success. Metrics include such variables as customer satisfaction, cost per order, defects per million and the number of people involved the process. Using tools, such as a Pareto chart, to sort data into a visual chart allows a manager to determine if the biggest problems can be corrected by improvements. Research has found that 80 percent of the negative effects of a business tend to originate from only 20 percent of the causes.
Planning is an important part of continuous improvement. Companies need to consider what they will do to meet certain business objectives. For instance, if the company is interested in expanding into new service areas it must identify the areas it intends to move into and then plan for how this expansion will be accomplished. Planning is a critical first step in the continuous improvement process.
Once a plan has been developed, it is time to put that plan in place, or implement it. Well-developed plans will contain strategies, tactics and action plans that clearly outline for the organization and its members what is to be done, when and by whom. Actually “doing” involves putting into place a series of activities or actions.
Once a plan has been implemented, the next step is to study the impact of that implementation. For instance, suppose a company plans and implements a new safety program designed to reduce the number of on-site accidents in a manufacturing plant. As the plan is implemented, the company studies the impact of the plan on safety levels. If safety levels improve, the company will assume that the plan had a positive impact. If safety levels remain the same or decline, the company will assume that the plan did not have a positive impact.
Based on the results after plan implementation, companies then take action. If the results have been favorable, the company will continue to implement the plan and perhaps spread the plan to other parts of the organization. If the plan has not been a success, the company will consider what it has learned and begin the planning cycle–plan, do, study, act–again, as part of its continuous improvement efforts.