All You Ever Wanted to Know About Continuous Process Improvement, But Were Too Afraid to Ask
Continuous Process Improvement might strike you as YABA (Yet Another Business Acronym), but at its heart, it is something much more.
When a technique can help you operate at optimum efficiency, and deliver high-quality products and services, you need to sit up and listen. Let’s take a look at what Continuous Process Improvement is, what it can do, how it can be carried out, and the specific advantages it can offer you.
What Is Continuous Process Improvement?
Continuous Process Improvement is key to making your organization more efficient, innovative, and agile in the long term. But that sounds rather vague, so let’s break it down.
By incorporating changes into your business processes, services, or products continuously, you can make improvements to the way an organization is run. The key is continuity–anyone can make changes to a couple of processes and call it progress, but it takes a shift in your work style to actually effect change. And that’s the core of continuous process improvement, or business process improvement in the context of a for-profit or not-for-profit business.
There’s some disparity with what continuous process improvement should be called. Some sources may refer to continuous process improvement as the ‘continual improvement process’. And there’s some merit to that: continuous process improvement has been considered a meta-process in itself, within business process improvement tools.
The Techniques Used
There are a number of techniques used to implement a continuous process improvement, some of which are used in conjunction with each other. These are some of the popular choices.
The 5 Whys
A continuous process improvement technique first used by the famous Toyota Production System (TPS), the 5 whys is a straightforward, cut-through-the-nonsense technique. Just as the name describes, you ask the question “why” 5 times to get to the root of any problem.
The inventor of the technique, Taiichi Ono, says that both the nature of the problem as well as its solution become clear when you ask “why” 5 times. You’ll get closer to the root of the issue as well as its solution with each repetition.
The vehicle will not start. (the problem)
#1 Why? – The battery is dead.
#2 Why? – The alternator is not functioning.
#3 Why? – The alternator belt has broken.
#4 Why? – The alternator belt was well beyond its useful service life and not replaced.
#5 Why? – The vehicle was not maintained according to the recommended service schedule. (root cause)
The 5 Whys are popular in continuous process improvement, and feature in other business process improvement techniques like Kaizen, lean manufacturing, and Six Sigma.
Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) Cycle
What do you do when something is described as the key to Japan’s competitive success? If your answer was “sit up and take notes”, here’s what it is: Kaizen, another continuous improvement technique from TPS. This Japanese word means ‘improvement’.
Here’s how it works.
Say there’s a hitch in the TPS production line. All line personnel are expected to stop everything they’re doing, and, along with their supervisor, suggest a solution. This initiates a kaizen cycle.
The Kaizen Cycle, also called the PDCA or Deming Wheel, is the quintessential continuous process improvement technique. The Plan stage identifies issues, problems or opportunities to improve in a process/product. This is the most important stage, and can take up to 50% of the entire PDCA cycle.
This technique falls under the Six-Sigma approach mentioned earlier. This methodology is an abbreviation of ‘Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control’, a way to ensure that changes are measurable and repeatable.
- ‘Define’ is when you identify areas that will have an optimal impact when changes are made, and zero in on metrics that will ensure continuous process improvement.
- During the ‘Measure’ stage, you document current processes and set the methodology and metrics by which success will be measured.
- The ‘Analyze’ stage identifies the root cause of the issue with the process.
- The goal of the ‘Improve’ stage is to figure out a solution, and start rolling out changes to the process.
- At the ‘Control’ stage, you set up the framework to ensure long-term success.
How Continuous Process Improvement Happens
- First, you study the techniques and processes that are currently used. Then, you pinpoint a challenge, or an area for improvement.
- Next, you figure out a fix for the problem, or a way to improve the process.
- This solution/change gets implemented.
- Then, the solution gets ‘standardized; which means that rules are set in place to ensure that an improved process stays improved.
- Once all this is done, you consider future improvements. Areas that can be further improved are identified, and further targets are set.
Why is Continuous Process Improvement So Important Anyway?
When you implement a continual improvement process, you do more than improve a process.
- You shorten the time an idea takes to go the implementation stage.
- Knowledge is shared, and every person in the organization learns from a mistake a single person made. In other words, Continuous Business Process Improvement means that knowledge gained from one mistake is spread to everyone, without them having to make the same mistake to learn the same lesson.
- Your entire workforce becomes more skilled.
Take the case of a company like Bosch. Ehrtfried Baeumel, leader of business excellence at Bosch Bamberg GmbH–and a dedicated evangelist on continuous improvement and business excellence matters–elaborates: “Once everyone knows, understands, and accepts the strategy as well as the targets they’ve received, they will work on them with commitment and enthusiasm, and – most importantly – pull together in the same direction towards a vision.”
That’s no empty statement: A Continual Improvement Process has helped the brand maintain jobs and increase customer satisfaction by 15 percent, up to an incredible 97 percent-satisfaction rating. Baaumel’s Bamberg plant was recognized as a double prize winner in 2011, and again as a double prize winner and the overall winner of the European Foundation for Quality Management (EFQM) Excellence Award in 2012.
With continuous process improvement, you ensure that your business becomes measurably more efficient and productive. Solutions like Kissflow Process help you keep your Business Process Improvement on track–you can develop your own apps to make, and keep track of, improvements to processes.