Continuous Improvement for Process Changes

19 Sep 2023


Change Management. Continuous Improvement. Process Optimization.

If you’re Googling terms like these, you’re likely researching ways to refine your company’s practices. Your business could probably use a boost, too. Whatever your reasoning, it’s a fair bet that something has got to change.

While change management is an umbrella term that refers to more sweeping, top-down corporate changes like mergers and acquisitions, new leadership, the widespread rollout of a new product, or the integration of new technology, continuous improvement refers to a more ground-level, gradual approach to revising and enhancing company practices in which all stakeholders can participate.

The slow and steady nature of continuous improvement may be the key factor behind its ability to effect lasting, positive change.

During her 2013 TEDx Talk, Penny Weller, Senior Director and North American Practice Leader for Global Business Services at the Hackett Group, equated sudden and sizeable operational changes with New Year’s resolutions, declaring that, on average, the two share a 70% failure rate.

Considering this, when embarking on a project that you hope will improve the way your company operates, it’s best to start small and work slowly, focusing on goals that are achievable in the short term rather than biting off more than you can chew at the start. 

Continuous improvement is an ongoing effort to enhance products, services, and processes. It is a mindset that encourages organizations to evaluate their current practices, identify areas for improvement, and implement changes to achieve better results.

By continuously refining and optimizing processes, businesses can become more efficient, reduce waste, and deliver greater value to their customers.

In today’s fast-paced and ever-changing business landscape, organizations must be agile and constantly strive to improve their processes. Continuous improvement is a fundamental concept that enables companies to adapt, grow, and stay competitive at a realistic pace.

Regardless of whether your workplace is a typical sea of cubicles and computers, a bustling industrial manufacturing floor, or even a small retail shop, applying the principles of continuous improvement when considering changes to your company processes can significantly help to drive future success.

An East-Meets-West Origin

While it may be a stretch to claim that the Japanese are solely responsible for coming up with the idea of making small improvements over time, the culture renowned the world over for promoting precision, quality, durability, dependability, and efficiency definitely deserves credit for developing an entire system from the concept and giving it a lasting name.

The term “Kaizen”translates most simply to “good change” and has itself become interchangeable with continuous improvement around the globe.

Universally adopted by businesses, governments, and the sciences, Kaizen has helped organizational leaders in numerous fields find ways to increase productivity and profits while simultaneously reducing costs and unnecessary material and energy expenditures.

Kaizen’s history traces back to businesses operating in Japan during the post-World War II era—most notably the Toyota Motor Corporation.

Credit is also due to the influence of Dr. W. Edwards Deming, an American charged with assisting the nation with its efforts to rebuild after the conflict.

Dr. Deming encouraged Japanese business leaders, plagued by the hardships and deficiencies brought on by the economic conditions at the time, to focus on processes before results—an approach informed by his own experience in manufacturing waste reduction during the U.S. war effort.

While these ideas may have germinated on American soil, they blossomed in Japan and didn’t return home until the late 1970s and early 1980s, when American business leaders finally recognized their high value.

Since then, Kaizen has evolved into a fully-fledged philosophy and a best practice applicable to any business model.

It’s also important to note that these practices are more than a one-time initiative.

Ushering in a welcome culture shift and a long-term commitment to excellence is the intent of Kaizen and its derivatives.

For the companies that embrace its tenets, continuous improvement offers a path toward comprehensive enhancements across the board and defined methodologies for every member of an organization to follow indefinitely.

The Benefits

The long-term gains made possible by adopting a continuous improvement approach should capture the interest of any business manager, as their benefits are far reaching.

A company that commits to a continuous improvement plan can expect to see progress across five distinct categories.

1. Efficiency

Continuous improvement enables organizations to streamline their processes, eliminating potential bottlenecks and reducing waste. By identifying inefficiencies and making incremental corrections, companies can significantly improve their productivity and save resources, including the most valuable resource of all—time.

2. Quality

By following continuous improvement protocols, organizations can focus on identifying and resolving product or service quality issues. By implementing changes to prevent such defects or errors, businesses can deliver higher quality products and services to their customers. This ensures client satisfaction and helps build, or rebuild, a positive reputation.

3. Cost Savings

Continuous improvement helps businesses identify cost-saving opportunities by eliminating unnecessary steps, reducing the potential for defects, and optimizing resource utilization. By becoming more efficient, organizations can minimize expenses and allocate resources more effectively.

4. Competitiveness

In today’s competitive market, organizations must differentiate themselves to stay ahead. Continuous improvement allows companies to keep pace with evolving customer demands and market trends. By continuously adapting to market changes and improving their processes, businesses can stay relevant and gain that often-elusive competitive edge.

5. Employee Engagement

Continuous improvement processes typically involve the entire workforce at multiple levels. This arrangement can serve as an opportunity for employees to engage with management and feel empowered to share their ideas and suggestions. When employees feel that their opinions are heard and valued, it increases job satisfaction and leads to further engagement, productivity, and innovation.

The Basics

Before implementing a continuous improvement plan and enacting process changes at your company, it’s important to understand the general, foundational elements of the method.

1. Set clear objectives.

The goals and the desired outcomes of your continuous improvement initiative must be clearly defined at the outset. Establish future milestones, measurable targets, and a predetermined time after implementation when you’ll assess the success of your improvement efforts. This helps create a clear roadmap of where you’d like to be at a certain time and ensures that the improvements are aligned with the organization’s larger strategic objectives.

2. Analyze current processes.

Conduct a comprehensive analysis of your existing processes to identify opportunities for improvement. Use tools like process mapping, value stream analysis, and data analysis to gain insights into any inefficiencies or pain points. This examination of your current business model helps identify the specific components that need to change and serves as a basis for developing improvement strategies.

For this step, it’s often helpful to outsource process optimization professionals to help reimagine workflows and rewrite existing process documentation. An outside perspective can provide the missing scope that prevents regularly unnoticed weak spots from being identified.

3. Get all hands on deck.

Involve employees at all levels in the continuous improvement initiative. Foster a culture of participation and encourage employees to share their insights and suggestions for process improvements. Employees are often the ones most familiar with the day-to-day operations and can provide valuable input that inspires meaningful change.

4. Mix it up!

Abandon compartmentalization and encourage cross-functional collaboration. By bringing different teams and expertise levels together, your company will likely generate innovative ideas and uncover hidden opportunities for positive change. Collaboration not only enhances the diversity of your improvement efforts, it also fosters a culture of continuous learning and knowledge sharing.

5. Commit to the change.

Based on the analysis and the input from your coworkers, develop a plan to implement the process changes. Start with small, incremental changes and monitor their impact. Continuously evaluate the effectiveness of the changes and make further adjustments as needed. Make certain all stakeholders are aware of the changes and their potential impacts and provide the requisite training and support for a successful rollout.

6. Measure and track progress.

Establish data points and key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure the significance of your process changes. Regularly track progress and analyze the gathered data to determine if your efforts have achieved their desired outcomes. This helps to evaluate the effectiveness of the continuous improvement efforts and provides valuable insights for any future changes.

7. Continuously adapt.

Continuous improvement is a never-ending journey—but that’s the beauty of it. Encourage a culture shift where management and employees alike continually seek feedback, evaluate results, and adapt their processes based on changing needs and market dynamics. Embrace new technologies and methods that can further enhance the continuous improvement efforts and drive innovation.

Do your homework.

Committing the basics of continuous improvement to memory is simple using the easy-to-remember acronym PDCA, which stands for Plan, Do, Check, Act.

But there are a multitude of well-defined continuous improvement methodologies worth researching further to determine if one or more—or a unique hybrid of your own creation—are the best fit for your particular change management needs.

The Lean Method

Originating in more industrial working environments, the Lean Method’s principles can just as easily apply to less physical workspaces.

This organizational technique aims to improve conditions and performance through the elimination of waste, inventory reductions, and an optimized workflow.

Central to the Lean Method’s ideology are the five “S” Pillars:

  1. Sort. Clear everything away from the work area that isn’t necessary for the task at hand.
  2. Set in Order. Establish designated storage and work areas so everything has its place.
  3. Shine. A decluttered and clean work area will reveal the problems that need attention.
  4. Standardize. Once the best practices have been determined, make sure everyone adheres to them across the organization.
  5. Sustain. Maintain these practices going forward.

The Kanban Method

“Kanban,” another Japanese term meaning “visual board,” also has its roots in Toyota’s processes, but has since been adopted by numerous other sectors outside the auto industry.

Kanban is related to the Lean Method in that it bases operations on customer demand and aims to improve efficiency through elimination. By visualizing current projects in progress, Kanban also offers all employees a view into what efforts are needed when, empowering them to contribute when able.

Six Sigma

Developed by Motorola engineer Bill Smith in 1986, Six Sigma functions much like the Lean Method, except that instead of eliminating waste, the goal is to eliminate defects and undesirable variations from a production process.

Six Sigma introduces another acronym and another Japanese term: “Poka-yoke,” or “mistake proofing” that takes place through the five phases of DMAIC, which stands for Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control.


Total Quality Management

Total Quality Management (TQM) is an approach that extends the principles of continuous improvement to the entire production process, the supply chain, and the customer experience by holding all stakeholders accountable for overall end-product quality.

As long as you make every party in your organization aware of their individual roles and responsibilities involving company-wide improvement efforts, whichever methodology or custom combination you employ will likely benefit your business.

The truly critical factor behind the success of any process improvement plan is the frequency in which it is revisited and reevaluated.

While novel improvement initiatives, or Kaizen bursts, can be inspiring when they are fresh in participants’ minds, just like so many New Year’s resolutions, engagement tends to fade quickly without maintenance.

The core elements of a continuous improvement plan should always remain in focus for every stakeholder. Be sure to review and update process maps yearly at a minimum.

By adopting a culture of continuous improvement and recognizing that it is a never-ending pursuit by design, organizations can drive positive change, boost efficiency, and deliver higher quality products and services. With the right mindset, tools, and strategies, businesses can harness the power of continuous improvement to stay competitive in the fast-paced markets of the modern era.

If you are searching for professional help with process improvement, workflow organization, or documenting your company’s change management plan, reach out to us for a quote today!

Peter Albrecht 

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