What is Continuous Process Improvement?

Many managers who find themselves in positions that require an understanding of the phrase “Continuous Process Improvement” shrink at the thought of becoming involved in a world inhabited by a “brain the size of a planet” scientist type analyst whose very tool-set is disturbingly strange. Rest easy if a small lightbulb was switched on there; all “continuous improvement” truly means is that the methods for optimising workflow to reduce waste and inefficiency are examined to incrementally (or dramatically) improve products and services/processes.

Know the Terminology, but Don’t Get Lost in it

This continuous improvement process concept may align with formal “lean” methodologies such as Agile, Kaizen, and Six Sigma for resolving business process issues; but, ultimately, don’t be spooked by the terminology. Every good idea to improve the end product or service is, in fact, “Continuous Improvement”. If you have come up with some great process ideas in the past, you are most likely in the process improvement club. But let’s take a closer look at the “formal” methods. 

These formal continuous improvement models ensure constant improvements by seeking ways to cut costs and raise efficiency. Often these two goals are interrelated. Most business processes can be broken down into a sequence of activities. Complex processes are often filled with wasted motion, delays, poor communication, or duplicated efforts that reduce efficiency and incur greater costs. Continual Improvement, or Rapid Improvement, is done through a series of projects to analyze processes and look for specific areas where wasted time or resources can be minimized.

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There are two main continuous process improvement philosophies:

1. Formalised Continuous Process Improvement
2. Adaptive Continuous Process Improvement

Formalized continuous process improvement is often aligned to the standards like six sigma, a set of tools and techniques to achieve process improvement toward a measurable financial return.

More adaptive methods are general guidelines that can utilize any combination of elements from other processes on a case-by-case basis. But in all lean methods, continued improvement is the core principle.

Providing Value with Continuous Process Improvement

Efficiency is a worthy goal, but not always the sole objective. Any loss of quality due to rushing or over-simplification of processes does not provide business value. The objective in continuous process improvement is to make incremental changes that provide greater value, not necessarily a drive to produce results cheaper and faster.

Continued improvement in all departments and processes is seldom possible, given constraints on time and expenses. Instead, most companies implement lean methods in terms of “events”. Execution of these events is also called Value Stream Mapping.

Value Stream Mapping events provide a greater understanding of what’s taking place, what can be reasonably changed, and how improvements are to be tested and measured. These events are usually planned as one to five day projects, depending on the circumstances. Events usually end up with a list of steps and tasks for implementing corrective changes on a permanent basis. Having a management system that is process-based, which means the business is seen as a collection of inter-related processes, will ease the transition to Value Stream Mapping.

However, some companies may feel that relentless improvement limits innovation. While reducing waste saves money, stifling bold ideas or constantly adjusting processes may incur greater expense over the long term than saving a little money at every event.

Most process are also inter-dependent, so that changing one sub-process calls for changes to another. How much time and effort is put into continuous improvement is something that each company needs to determine internally.

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Continuing Improvement in Practice

The continuous improvement cycle starts with identifying a process, task, workstation, or workflow where bottlenecks or other issues tend to occur. Evaluating and measuring the process is the first step before taking action. Some companies will mistakenly launch an event at the first sign of trouble only to find that their focus is not the root cause of the problem. At times, even efficient processes may be a waste of time in the larger workflow.

Questions that need to be asked include:

* How many people are involved?
* How much time and money is spent on the process?
* What kind of gain could a fix provide, in terms of cost, hours, etc.?
* What other teams in the workflow will be affected? How?
* Is the potential gain worth the impact on overall workflow?

In many cases, management will form brainstorming teams that discuss operational issues, and recommend topics that need to be assessed. Lean teams assigned to the project may employ some variation on a typical event:

1. Project or Kanban board: This is a visual board or display which breaks processes down into vertical and horizontal lanes to map out requirements and details, such as who is responsible for which task. It helps people more readily understand their role in the workflow.

2. Analysis: The team reviews the process to find areas that can be streamlined. They may, for instance, see benefits in a different distribution of raw materials, and team members, or a need for better tools and equipment. This may involve varied trials and data collection.

3. Recommendations: Ultimately the team finds a resolution to the identified issue. If it can be determined that it’s worth pursuing, the team comes up with actionable steps to see that the changes are effectively implemented, such as training employees in new skills.

Continuous improvement should be integrated into the company culture as it is a proven approach to increasing the value that your processes deliver to the organization and can be applied to virtually any size or type of business.

Is the Adaptable Approach Enough?

If continuous process improvement is not taken seriously at all levels of the organization, it is less like to be effective. The outcome of any Continuous Improvement exercise or project must be formalised within the management system in order to drive the new, improved ways of working, otherwise it remains another good idea that is tacit in nature and only passed on by word of mouth.

Many business are still using antiquated text based procedures and calling these “processes.” Unfortunately these procedures are often immune to critical analysis. If the processes are really text-based procedures or are presented in a flowchart with minimal information with holes that you could drive a bus through, then you need to consider becoming process-based as improvement and efficiency gains will not come easy.

Process-based continuous improvement makes the clear mapping, visualisation and understanding of process the means by which continuous improvement occurs. After all, how effective is continuous improvement if you don’t have a good understanding of your processes to begin with? Mapping out the process to visualise “who does what where and when,” understanding the “as is” before the “to be” will provide the clarity of action required to improve the process, remove waste, duplication and general inefficiency. And you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to become involved.

The Agility Systems process based integrated management system has it is core highly visual swim lane process maps that give organizations a good understanding of their processes before they launch improvements. This method ensures that your efforts will not be wasted.

Written by Peter Shields, Managing Director of Businessport LTD.

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