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Continuous improvement - a Toolpack guide

Continuous improvement is constantly adapting by getting and using information, and by evaluating changes to make sure they were effective. It requires:

  • Good information about your environment, from a variety of sources, to evaluate your outcomes (what you do) and your processes (how you do it).
  • The ability to pull people together from different levels and areas to freely discuss the information and issues involved, come up with ideas, evaluate them, choose some, and carry them out.
  • Systematic ways to measure your progress and the outcomes of your changes.
  • A real desire to do it, even if it means changing power relationships and doing some things you do not completely agree with.

Many continuous improvement efforts focus on how things get done. For example, a major travel center was able to isolate processes which could cause mistakes, raise costs, increase lag time, or cause disagreements with customers. Over four weeks, by working with these processes, they were able to cut errors into one third of their previous level. They continued to hone their service using customer surveys, computerized error and efficiency measures, and their key tool -- regular special meetings of key managers and supervisors.

Continuous improvement is often most essential when dealing with services. Chrysler's "five star" dealer incentive program, for example, is designed for "improving or creating processes to quickly find what creates customer dissatisfaction and find ways to fix these issues."

continuous improvement

The first piece of the process is quickly getting in touch with customers (getting information). Dealers who want the five stars have to contact each customer to get feedback on their sales or service experience. Because many people routinely get and ignore feedback, they must also use that information. By making use of feedback mandatory, the company avoids alienating customers and wasting time. Getting information and not using it lowers trust, increases frustration, and costs money.

Customer or student problems provide companies with an opportunity to show that their "service" lines are not just talk; and with an even more important opportunity to find problems and resolve them. As part of its new five star program, Chrysler will require dealers to have processes in place not only to resolve customer problems, but also to learn from them. That is a hallmark of continuous improvement: collecting information at every opportunity, and putting it to use.

One of the other new requirements is training for people who will deal with customers. People must understand everyday on-the-job expectations, and expectations regarding their role in the process. Change efforts are hobbled unless everyone understands that they are not just able to have an effect, but are expected to. This applies whether people are selling cars, taking money from students, or running a student computer lab.

Continuous improvement cannot be run only at the top, or even just at management levels. The staff usually have information that managers do not know about or are reluctant (or afraid) to use. Using their ideas is vital to continuous improvement; the most successful programs seem to be the ones that have the highest staff involvement, right down to the lowest-paid employees. Teams of General Electric employees from all levels have reportedly cut GE's costs by millions of dollars per year. Similar cost savings were reported by Motorola, Chubb, and many other companies.

One sometimes-neglected feature of continuous improvement is the use of objective information. By using surveys, objective measures (such as turnaround time and number of errors), and other forms of feedback, we can get a good handle on what is going well and what is not. When we make a change, we can see if it is working well and work with other people to make adjustments. That is a micro version of continuous improvement: having the measures, using them, working with other people, always striving for improvement, and not waiting for new technology, people, or management to make changes.

A common framework for continuous improvement, used because it provides some organization and reality-checking, is called “plan-do-check-act.” The idea is that, once a shortfall is sighted, people should plan their changes, make their changes (“do”), check to make sure that they have had the desired effect, and then move on to further changes (“act.”)

Some companies have found that simply posting productivity or quality data every day (or every week) raises production and quality, because people can tell when they are doing things right, and get themselves into a personal continuous improvement cycle. Companies that use balanced scorecards can use scorecard information for continuous improvement - indeed, it's a central part of the balanced scorecard process.

Continuous improvement requires dedication and a willingness to be guided by objective information sources and the priorities of students and staff. We still set our goals and choose where we want to go, but our job becomes easier because change becomes easier, and we have more resources. Continuous improvement makes working more fun, because we get into an experimenting, trying-new-things frame of mind which makes our jobs as managers (and our employeees' job) more exciting. People start working together towards common goals, with more information; offices become nicer places to work.

The results of sustained, serious continuous improvement programs speak for themselves. With a little effort and a lot of dedication, practicing continuous improvement becomes easier than saying it.

Next steps

Contact Toolpack Consulting to discuss continuous improvement at your organization.

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continuous improvement and organizational development