Author: Mike Sabbatis
Too often, we look for the "big bang" moment; that point in time where significant improvement appears to happen all at once. In reality, forward progress usually comes in small, incremental chunks. There are times when forward progress is so small that measuring the difference barely moves the needle, but that doesn't mean improvement didn't happen. Continuous improvement is often preferred over "big bang" moments.
What is continuous improvement?
Continuous improvement consists of incremental changes and improvements that occur while an organization goes about its normal activities. Simply put, every employee of an organization continues with their daily tasks while keeping an eye out for areas of potential change that can add value to products, services, and processes.
Continuous improvement is largely employee-driven. Because employees are, in many cases, closest to the actual output, it is logical they should be the ones driving the incremental changes that come with continuous improvement. These changes tend to feel more natural and are more likely to stick than a large, potentially disruptive shift that implements multiple changes all at once. Though the incremental changes that come from continuous improvement may be difficult to pinpoint on an individual basis, continuous improvement can make major changes over time. Thinking with the end in mind, these can be the source of the "big bang."
Why should I implement continuous improvement?
Organizations that develop a great product or service, and then sit back and never make changes or improvements are doomed to fail. Very quickly, your competitors will not only catch up but overtake you. If you never stop asking, "What will it take to get to the next level?" you can create a competitive advantage that makes it difficult for others in the industry to overcome.
For most service-industries like accounting, the largest benefits seen from continuous improvement revolve around improving efficiency and strengthening the quality of customer service. Productivity and capacity also tend to rise due to increased efficiency, allowing the organization to potentially recognize greater growth.
There is also a halo effect that comes with implementing continuous improvement; you are likely to see decreased turnover and increased employee engagement. Because this is largely employee-driven, employees feel they have skin in the game. If one of their co-workers suggests a process improvement, they are more likely to support the change, if only because they will want support when they make a suggestion.
How do I encourage continuous improvement in my organization?
Depending on your organization, implementing continuous improvement may necessitate a cultural shift. For the creation and growth of a continuous improvement culture, employees need to be empowered and encouraged to support changes and take part in proactively identifying possible areas of improvement.
This means taking steps such as:
Implementing the plan-do-check-act framework
Educating employees and stakeholders about the benefits of continuous improvement
Communicating how improvements have benefited the organization clearly and consistently
Integrate continuous improvement steps into each individual's job duties
Beyond the usual steps I've listed, find your change champions – people who learn something new and then ask, "Why can't we do that here?" Often extroverted champions are easy to spot, but take the time to find your introverts as well. These champions are less likely to make noise and more likely to work tirelessly to make something better without expectation of reward. These champions may need a little more support to come forward.
When you implement continuous improvement as part of your business processes, you're encouraging growth. By inspiring ideas that make people's jobs easier, safer, or better, employees at all levels will be invested in making the organization the best that it can be. Keep in mind that productivity materializes with people. Empower your people, openly support the process, and be patient; growth will follow an organization with a culture of continuous improvement.
If you missed parts ones and two of this series on creating a better business process, you can learn about how to identify and combat bottlenecks here, and how to design that better business process here
Mike Sabbatis is XCM's CEO. He has extensive experience leading fast-paced, customer-focused organizations leveraging innovative, forward-looking technologies that disrupt the norm while sustaining long-term profitable growth. He has led and inspired global teams comprised of more than 2,500 employees, as well as divisional start-ups and joint ventures.