Continuous Improvement Process: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How to Get the Most Out of Yours
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Every organization has processes (including yours). And today, we’ll reveal how to turn your current workflows into continuous improvement processes by both fostering the right mindset and using the tools and techniques that will help you get there.
Continuous improvement processes look different for each and every organization. While continuous improvement is something that every team should strive for, the process part really depends on your own business context.
That’s why I’ve put together this guide: to explain first the basics of what a continuous improvement process is – and why having one makes such a difference – and then take you through the different tools and techniques you can use to get the most out of yours.
What is a Continuous Improvement Process?
First, let’s start with the basics.
Having a continuous improvement process means that you take your existing process and then apply continuous improvement techniques to optimize it.
A process consists of a series of activities your team follows to deliver results to your customers. And when I say “customers”, I don’t necessarily mean the end users of your product. Your legal department could very well be your customer as soon as they give you requests and expect results.
Now, the continuous improvement techniques apply on top of your existing process and they are repeatable and scalable. And the “repeatable, scalable” part is exactly what leads to continuous improvement: because you are running through the same practices, over and over again, and tweaking your existing activities to be able to improve how your team manages the work.
These tweaks may seem small at first, but over time they lead to significant improvements as well as moments of discovery and innovation. Because you are taking small steps, you’re able to perform low-risk initiatives, test out new things, identify problems, and adjust quickly. And of course, if they don’t work out, you can easily reverse them.
Why Use a Continuous Improvement Process?
We’ve already mentioned some of the broadest benefits of a continuous improvement process, but let’s dive into some more specific examples:
Greater Business Agility
When you’re making small but constant evolutionary changes, essentially you’re already continuously improving your processes. These small changes lead to faster delivery and inevitably make it easier to adjust the direction you’re heading with your products.
Change is the one constant in the world of product management. Since no perfect system exists, the next best thing is a system that allows you to make a shift as soon as something is no longer working.
Less Resistance to Change
Instead of implementing a revolutionary transformation and then hoping that the tolerance of your leadership is higher than the pain of change, you’re doing smaller evolutionary experiments on a regular basis.
The J-curve effect is inevitable. However, with evolutionary change, you’ll see results much faster which often has the potential to make or break your transformation initiative (since a continual improvement process means you are constantly identifying ways to make your products even better!).
Culture of Continuous Improvement
Probably the biggest advantage of adopting a continuous improvement process is the fact that you’re constantly improving your management practices which enables you to do your job in the most effective and productive way.
As one small win leads to another, your team feels empowered to keep experimenting and improving the way they work.
Effectively, you’re enabling a culture of continuous improvement where your systems are self-optimizing and constantly evolving.
How to Enable a Continuous Improvement Process
A continuous improvement process is more than just a series of steps and practices applied over it – it’s a mindset. Both you and your teams need to have a vision and a mentality that’s in harmony with the common goal.
Foster Continuous Improvement Mentality
An attitude of continuous improvement is the engine that makes everything else run. If you and your teams are just going through the motions, you’re not going to accomplish nearly as much.
Use your daily meetings as an opportunity to re-commit to a mentality of continuous improvement. Share ideas to improve your processes, celebrate small (and big) wins once you implement those changes, and encourage everyone to speak up and give their perspective.
In her groundbreaking book Mindset, Carol Dweck discusses the differences between having a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset when it comes to skills and performance. People with a fixed mindset are afraid to challenge themselves or try new things, either because they think they can’t improve or they’re reluctant to do the hard work.
On the other hand, a growth mindset means that you’re not afraid to experiment, adapt, adjust and seek feedback – backed up by the belief that you are capable of accomplishing whatever you set your mind to.
For a continuous improvement process to become the new status quo, it’s important to help your teams embrace challenges and look at failure as an opportunity.
And if you want to take this one step further, you need to adopt a tool that will enable you to evaluate your process and recognize these opportunities.
With Nave, your teams will be able to see problems on their own, they’ll be able to address bottlenecks on their own and identify improvements that they can make in their processes right away.
Try it out for free on your management platform (it’s free for 14 days!) →
It’s easier to get discouraged and lose motivation when you don’t understand the purpose behind it all.
Make sure that your team members are onboard with the goals you set, and that you keep the focus on these goals – especially whenever you hit speed bumps. Without a clear goal or a “why” behind the direction you’re heading, it’s much easier to get distracted and lose your focus.
Review your goals every quarter, make sure they are still relevant and will help you achieve your business outcomes. And don’t forget: the more specific, actionable and exciting the goal, the more likely you are to see it through.
Ownership and Commitment
Your team members at the front lines know the ins and outs of their processes best. When you promote acts of leadership at all levels, you empower each and every one of them to take the lead and make decisions on their own to improve the way they work.
Not only does this instill each team member with a deeper sense of responsibility and commitment, but it leads to more engaged, invested and dedicated teams.
Continuous Improvement Tools and Techniques
I hope that by now I’ve convinced you of the power of enabling a continuous improvement process.
Now, let’s look specifically at the different techniques that help you get started. Keep in mind, too, that many of these tools can be used together as they greatly complement each other.
Kaizen is formed from two Japanese characters: “kai”, meaning “change,” and “zen,” meaning “good.” Kaizen, fundamentally, is having a mindset of continuous improvement that’s rooted in self-reflection and self-analysis as well as being willing to hear constructive feedback from others. Translated literally, Kaizen means “the act of making bad points better.”
Some of the main principles of Kaizen include:
- Never stop improving
- Be willing to let go of old things that no longer work
- Get input from everyone
- Make sure everyone feels comfortable contributing
- Be creative, resourceful and adaptive
One of the most famous examples of kaizen is the Toyota Production System. Toyota’s early leaders Taiichi Ohno and Shigeo Shingo admired Ford Motors, but also looked for ways to improve over their competitor: this included having a more human-centered approach that saw their assembly workers not just as raw manpower, but as sources of insight for improving the whole system.
Kaizen is a powerful philosophy because it instills in every person at every level of the organizational ladder a commitment to doing better, including openness to both sharing and receiving constructive feedback from others. For teams that employ Kaizen, the desire and ability to identify opportunities for improvement becomes second nature.
Root Cause Analysis (RCA) and “the Five Whys”
A Root Cause Analysis (RCA) or “the Five Whys” is an essential part of any kaizen practice.
This means that whenever something goes wrong, you stop to analyze and investigate. Rather than going off of what you think is happening, this approach enables you to find out what the actual root cause of the problem is.
Start asking “why” five times. While the number five is just a guideline, it’s important that you don’t confuse symptoms with the actual cause. The best way to get to the actual problem is by asking “why” as many times as possible until you get to the ultimate reason for the issue.
And remember, at the moment you start answering the question “Who,” you’ve headed in the wrong direction.
Here’s an example of the Five Whys in action:
Problem: Customers are not happy with the latest product update
Why #1: Customers say changes to the UX are clunky and unintuitive
Why #2: UX not tested properly before release
Why #3: The feature was finished too close to release date for full UX testing
Why #4: Estimated completion time was too optimistic
Why #5: Delivery date estimates did not rely on statistical methods such as Monte Carlo simulation
Now that you’ve boiled it down to the root cause, you’re able to start problem-solving. In this case, an immediate solution would be to introduce Monte Carlo in parallel with your existing method of making delivery commitments.
Keep both approaches and let the team see on their own which one is the less time-consuming and ultimately the more reliable one.
The Plan, Do, Check, Act (PDCA) cycle is also related to Kaizen, but because it’s one of the most popular techniques in product management today, we’ll focus on it here.
The PDCA cycle has its roots in a 1920’s improvement model called “Plan, Do, Check,” created by Walter Shewhart. The statistician William Deming came along and revised this model further while collaborating with the Japanese, who in turn took it and developed it into “Plan, Do, Check, Act.”
PDCA follows four logical steps:
Identify a way a process can be improved. Come up with a solution for how to resolve or improve the issue.
Implement the solution. Observing the process in action and gathering hard data to assess how effective or ineffective the change has been.
Evaluate the results and data collected during the Do phase. Were the outcomes the same as expected? Did the Do phase cause any unintended changes?
Determine where to go next, based on the results of Step #3. If your plan worked, you have resolved the issue. If the plan was not a success, you will go back to step #1 of the PDCA cycle, revise, and try again until you achieve the desired outcome.
The PDCA cycle is a powerful tool because it allows you to experiment and try different things until you arrive at a solution. Even if your initial hypothesis doesn’t work, you can repeat the cycle until you resolve the problem.
Theory of Constraints
The Theory of Constraints (ToC) hypothesizes that complex systems are chains of linked activities, with the weakest link having the ability to undermine the whole system. This weakest link is usually the bottleneck that slows the whole process down.
The objective, then, is to identify the weakest link and either strengthen or eliminate it, before moving on to the next weakest link – and so on, repeating the cycle. This theory was first developed by Eliyahu Goldratt in his bestselling book The Goal and it’s since become a proven method for decreasing cycle time, improving throughput and reducing waste.
ToC is broken down in the Five Focusing Steps Cycle that allow you to identify and then eliminate constraints.
Identify what the current bottleneck is that’s slowing down your delivery speed. It could be a process policy (or a lack of one!) that may cause the impediment.
Exploit the constraint by using your existing resources first. By doing this, you’ll be able to make immediate improvements without implementing expensive or disruptive changes.
Look at all other activities in the process and subordinate them to the current constraint. Make sure they are all able to support solving the needs of the current constraint.
If Steps #1 and #2 have not eliminated the constraint, then look into further solutions at this point. This may, for example, involve hiring new staff or investing in leveling up the expertise of your team.
Move onto the next constraint and repeat the process. Since a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, repeating the cycle enables you to forge the strongest chain possible.
If you’re interested to get started right away and identifying the most pressing issue that’s slowing you down and working upon its prompt resolution, I’d be thrilled to welcome you to our Sustainable Predictability program. Get access to the first module of the program now (it’s free for 7 days!) →
We’ve covered a lot of ground – here is the most important thing I want you to walk away remembering:
You already have everything you need to enable a continuous improvement process.
Start with what you do now and together with your teams, come up with a vision for what you want and clear goals for how to get there.
Foster a culture that encourages feedback, collaboration and a constant search for opportunities to improve – and don’t be afraid to make mistakes along the way.
I hope this guide was helpful – feel free to use it as a reference going forward! And if you know a fellow manager or colleague who could use some insight on continuous improvement processes, be sure to share this article with them.
Thanks for reading this far, and I’ll see you next week, same time and place, for more managerial insights!
Meet the Author
Sonya Siderova is a passionate product manager and a driving force behind Nave, a Kanban analytics suite that helps teams improve their delivery speed through data-driven decision making. When she's not catering to her two little ones, you might find Sonya absorbed in a good heavyweight boxing match or behind a screen crafting a new blog post.
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