The concept of continuous improvement has become central to many different types of businesses and organizations. From manufacturing and technology to healthcare and higher education, everyone now recognizes that improving processes, products and services must be an unceasing effort.
To really understand continuous improvement and how it can be implemented, it’s important to take a look at how the idea started.
In the early 20th Century, a physicist named Walter A. Shewhart began applying statistical methods to factory production. His work with Bell Telephone and Western Electric Company demonstrated that reducing variation during manufacturing by establishing statistical control over the process would lead to steady and ongoing improvement.
Shewhart later collaborated with another physicist, W. Edwards Deming, to create more advanced methods of statistical process control (SPC). Deming went on to champion these methods during and after World War II, and his ideas played a role in Japan’s rise to post-war economic success.
Deming popularized the plan-do-check-act (PDCA) cycle, though he himself always called it the Shewhart cycle after his friend and colleague. PDCA forms the basis of many modern process improvement methodologies, such as Six Sigma, Lean and Kaizen. The steps of the cycle are as follows:
PDCA is an ongoing cycle; it does not end after the “act” phase. Instead, leaders and managers start the process over again with planning. An organization using a continuous improvement plan rooted in PDCA will always be involved in some step of the process.
Implementing a new continuous improvement plan can be difficult, and the details of how it’s best accomplished can vary from one business to another. But there is some advice that works broadly, even across industries.
1. Start in the c-suite: Your organization’s executive leadership team must be on board if building a continuous improvement plan is going to succeed. They have to understand and support every facet of the plan. Even if the initiative began with executives, it is still important to make sure everyone in a top-level leadership position is well-informed. You can’t assume the CFO grasps and accepts the plan simply because the CEO and CTO are behind it; makes sure everyone in the c-suite is fully involved.
2. Use a pilot program: Implementing a new continuous improvement plan throughout a large organization is risky. Rank-and-file employees may have lots of questions and objections, and middle managers could become overwhelmed trying to handle them. Even making sure everyone has a basic understanding of the plan can be tricky if you’re talking about more than a few dozen people.
It’s much wiser to roll out your new plan to one team or one department first. This pilot program can help you educate and gain the support of a smaller group, and also provide insight into the questions and doubts employees are likely to have. Additionally, it gives you the opportunity to fix any initial problems in your continuous improvement plan before the entire company gets involved.
3. Keep employees engaged: From the beginning of your pilot program to the eventual organization-wide implementation, it’s critical for employees to understand the value of their participation in the continuous improvement plan. Ask for suggestions, and when you get a good one, put it into action quickly and recognize the person who submitted it. This lets employees know their input matters.
4. Allow for errors: When implementing a new continuous improvement plan, don’t be afraid to fail. There will be some amount of trial and error – you often won’t know what works and what doesn’t until you try. If it looks like your initial plan is not going to effectively address a specific problem, ask for suggestions and give the best ones a shot. Your employees know your organization and the products or services it provides. They can be your best resource when refining your plan.
Also keep in mind that your entire continuous improvement plan might take several attempts to implement. You want to get it right on the first try of course – that’s why strong pilot programs are so important – but don’t despair if you have to fix and then reposition your plan within the company. It could be that a false start was necessary to show you how continuous improvement can work best and where it really fits into your organization.
5. Put success on display: Sometimes a continuous improvement plan can make changes that are relatively small and hard to see. Be sure to regularly review the benefits and gains so that employees understand what they’re being asked to do makes a positive difference. Employees will often become more invested if your organization’s goals are clear and they can see how their participation in the continuous improvement plan is helping everyone achieve them.