We hear the terms “lean” and “continuous improvement” a lot, and often interchangeably. While lean focuses on improving customer value by eliminating waste (read more about lean here), continuous improvement focuses on making incremental efficiencies to internal processes which accumulate over time.
First implemented by Japanese industries struggling to rebuild after the devastation of WWII, kaizen was so successful that savvy American business picked it up. It’s now swept across the globe and has become a defining feature of many of the world’s most competitive businesses.
Continuous Improvement is Cultural
The Japanese term kaizen translates simply as “improvement.” Continuous improvement is a mindset. It’s the long term discipline of making incremental improvements that accumulate over time into big bottom line improvements.
There’s no room for elitism in continuous improvement. The CEO and shop floor or mail room worker alike must be committed to a cultural shift. Everyone endeavors, and everyone benefits.
Kaizen relies on workers’ grass roots ideas about how to improve the process they’re involved in everyday. It can’t be imposed effectively from head office because it requires intimate knowledge of ground level processes. This is why continuous improvement must begin with a cultural shift.
It’s About Empowerment
When was the last time you brought in a high priced consultant to talk to you about efficiency? Did you know that, most of the time, the answers he/she charged a bundle for were probably in front of you the whole time?
The beauty and the discipline of continuous improvement is that it’s not about hiring expensive consultants to tell you the secret of doing it. You have all you need to do it right now: they arrive at work every day for shift.
Continuous improvement harnesses the talent of your workers. It empowers workers to take more ownership of improving the processes they’re most engaged with. In exchange, management must take their employees’ ideas seriously and give them the consideration they’re worth.
You can simply think of it as the circle of business life.
When employees are motivated and engaged in their jobs, and not just performing automatic tasks, they become wellsprings of ideas. The ideas probably aren’t earth shattering, but shattering the earth isn’t the goal. Continuous improvement makes big bottom line changes out of small improvements amortized over time.
A few seconds saved in a process that’s repeated thousands of times will reap big dividends.
The Process of Continuous Improvement
Continuous Improvement relies on a 4 step cycle, iterated indefinitely and improving processes as it goes.
It’s planning deliberately, taking decisive action, gathering key metrics, and taking the data seriously, which you roll over into your next decisive planning process.
Companies are made of separate processes, like trees are made of leaves, and every process can be improved. Continuous improvement is about creating the culture where every employee is personally invested in making improvements. It takes time to create that culture, but once established it will become the solid foundation of your company’s future.