A Continuous Improvement (CI) Initiative Roadmap

BY ALLAN CULLER - 2017-08-11

Continuous Improvement Initiatives are hardly a new concept in business, but a couple of times recently I’ve been asked for my idea of how to run one, a roadmap of sorts. For many CI practitioners this article will seem very basic. It is intentionally so. It is intended for the person who has only recently started to think about building an initiative or a culture of continuous improvement. Perhaps established practitioners will use it with their clients or perhaps it will serve as a refresher. I see it as an opportunity to go back to first principles.

What is CI?

Continuous Improvement (CI) is a rigorous, systematic way for organization to improve performance. These methodologies and tools have been used by many companies, for example, Toyota, GE, Whirlpool, Allied Signal, Ford, Motorola, Honeywell, DuPont, Chase and BP.

CI isn’t “new” it has its roots in the start of the industrial revolution in the 18970s. It was developed further as the telephone industry developed in the 1920s and further developed by Japanese car manufacturers in the 1950s helped by Americans W. Edwards Deming and Joseph Juran. Toyota evolved Lean. Six Sigma evolved from Motorola, in the 1980s and 1990s.

There are so many different approaches to CI, Lean, Six Sigma, Total Quality Management (TQM), Re-engineering, Process Improvement. The list goes on. Each has its own language and frameworks. Devotees of one method or another are often a little like religious converts. They have the “one-true-way” to improve and all other ways are flawed at best or lead to business perdition at worst.

While there are many different approaches, they all boil down to:

  1. Measure where you are today (baseline)
  2. Understand the causes and plan to improve
  3. Measure the improvement
  4. Repeat

CI is easy to understand conceptually, but it is a discipline that requires consistent practice – think about martial arts or learning to pay the piano. There is also a required mindset – it starts with thinking about numbers not as individual numbers, e.g. a task takes “3 minutes of cycle time” to complete, but in comparison to other numbers, e.g. It took 3 minutes of cycle time to complete today, which is down from 3 ½ minutes yesterday.” Or the cycle time could be compared to a similar process. Thinking in terms of the "delta," - the change (and hopefully change for the better) is a place to start.

CI is most often used in improving business and operational processes. A process is simply a set of activities with the inputs and outputs of each activity step.

Input > Activity > Output

I have written elsewhere about developing process focus. It isn’t rocket science, but  seeing  the world this way is a driver to wanting to improve. Business improvement energy comes from the combination of  thinking about measurement, comparing metrics to see trends, and focusing on processes.

Implementing Continuous Improvement across the organization requires Leadership focus and commitment, using one consistent methodology or framework, and of course measuring inputs, activities, outputs and, of course, results.

A CI initiative often has a start-up expense, but becomes self-funding (paid for by revenue increases, and cost savings) in a year. That doesn’t just happen automatically. It takes discipline and practice.

What does a CI Initiative Look Like?

As I mentioned, a CI initiative can come in many forms, each with their own language and frameworks. The all have an underlying DNA.

Continuous Improvement methodologies tend to differentiate themselves by the problem solving model they use. Over the years my Results-Alliance colleagues and I have become methodology-agnostic. You have to use one and only one, but we’ve formed the view that it doesn’t really matter which one. Here are a few:

Most of these have 4-5 basic categories; some have up to 25 steps. We have even designed custom models for clients who were so driven by their “uniqueness” that they wanted to have their own problem solving model. Pick one. What’s important is that your organization is aligned around one. It makes communication so much easier. 

Why Teams? One can do a CI project individually, but it is easier to do larger projects in teams to spread the work and reinforce each other’s learning and discipline.

Change? Improvement is change and the point is not to revert to previous performance levels after improvement. This takes some hard tools like control charts and response plans and some soft change management skills as well.

How to Get Started

1. Leadership Commitment

As with most change efforts it is best to start with leadership.

  1. Make sure leaders agree what should be improved and why and communicate clear connections to strategic priorities
  2. Ensure alignment on chosen methodology, expected outcomes, set up and infrastructure funding, roles, responsibilities and reward

2. Train  resources

These are skills that ultimately everyone can and should learn, but some good roles to start with are:

  1. CI specialists to lead and staff projects
  2. Senior CI process experts who help leaders pick the right projects, troubleshoot projects and coach teams

3. Build Infrastructure

Initiatives like this must have supporting systems and processes. A few to think about are:

  1. Projects, metrics, and control plan databases
  2. A consistent instructional toolkit
  3. Benefits tracking
  4. Rewards and celebration

Pitfalls - what can go wrong?

Unfortunately, lots of CI initiatives fail. I have written elsewhere about some resistance to CI and what to do about it. There are some common Pitfalls:

  1. No Improvement mindset. Often people are task focused not process focused; often people think of numbers as a one-time event. This is exacerbated by goal setting systems and to-do lists. But if the improvement mindset doesn’t exist, start by building it.
  2. CI is for Them not us. Often leaders “delegate CI.” That never works. Leaders have to start and run projects like everyone else.
  3. CI is for Us not them. CI specialists are a good place to start, but creating a special class of people who do the improvement is death to CI. Six Sigma Black Belts higher level of skill is a good thing, but only with Green Belts and Yellow Belts to help make improvements. Improvement is everyone's job.
  4. It’s all about the certification. I’m all for recognition of skill development, but if this becomes more important than the actual improvement, then the organization is just helping specialists build a resume to move to their next job.
  5. It’s all about BIG projects. In CI training I often say that the real money in CI is in the second and third projects in the same area. Being able to “translate solutions without reinventing the wheel is the biggest gains come from.” 

CI isn’t rocket science or brain surgery, but it does take some practice. If an organization sticks with the disciple cost reductions of 30% and similar revenue increases are not uncommon. For those of us in the field, this seems like it should be a "no-brainer," that every organization would instantly see the wisdom of getting a little better each day. I wish that  were true.

I also wish that weight maintenance and exercise were easy and that clients just called me up to give me work. But, it's not about wishing; it's about measurement and disciplined action. And ,hey, I am getting a little better in each of these causal domains every day.

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In case you missed it, my last post was Why Organizations Do not Learn? Part IV of IV

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