Laura Berlinsky-Schine
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Continuous improvement is something we all know is good in theory, something we should strive for in our professional and personal lives — and something all businesses must embrace in order to succeed in a constantly changing landscape if they want to thrive (and survive). 

But it’s not enough to simply be cognizant of the importance of continuous improvement. It’s something that takes real work — hard work. And it’s something that everyone in the organization must be a part of in order for the business to succeed.

What is continuous improvement?

Continuous improvement is exactly what it sounds like: an ongoing, long-view process of seeking to improve a business or organization, including its processes, procedures, resources and more aspects of the company. These can be both internal and forward-facing.

Specifically, continuous improvement involves specific principles, which we will describe in greater detail below. Change does not occur in one fell swoop — rather, it happens incrementally over time, often long intervals — although in some cases, certain changes might be quick or even spontaneous. 

Often, organizations follow specific, measurable methods of continuous improvement so that they are able to track the progress individuals, departments and the overall organization have made. Or, a business might create its own metrics for tracking improvements over time.

The difference between “continuous” and “continual”

The word “continuous” is often confused with “continual,” and not just in this context. But there is a difference between the similar words.

Continuous refers to something that is taking place or occurring over a period of time. There is no finite conclusion to the event or series of events — they are ongoing. Meanwhile, continual, while chronic, has starts and stops. For example, a problem that occurs frequently for a long period of time but isn’t omnipresent would be described as continual.

In a business context, continuous improvement indicates improvement that is constant and consistent, happening all the time. The phrase continual improvement is sometimes used in its place. This might mean improvement that takes place in spurts or is not taking place at every moment, or it could just be a minor misuse of the term.

Either way, improvement is almost always on a business’s agenda, whether it’s continuous or continual.

Benefits of implementing continuous improvement on your team

You know that improvement is critical for your business. But how, specifically, is it advantageous? How will it make you, your employees, your services and your overall business better? Here are the biggest benefits of continuous improvement for your business.

• You’ll cut costs and improve profits.

• You’ll maximize productivity.

• You’ll increase employee satisfaction.

• You’ll increase customer satisfaction.

• You’ll decrease employee turnover.

• You’ll better engage your staff and improve your company culture.

• You’ll become more efficient as a team and organization.

• You’ll reduce waste.

• You’ll gain feedback.

• You’ll increase your output and improve your products and services.

• You’ll demonstrate your commitment to quality.

• You’ll gain a stronger understanding of the intricacies and operations of your organization.

• You’ll maximize learning at your organization.

• You’ll learn how to prioritize tasks and responsibilities.

• You’ll gain perspective.

• You’ll be better informed when you develop strategies for implementing improvement and change.

• You’ll gain a competitive edge in the market.

The 6 principles of continuous improvement — and how to use them for better productivity

Principle #1: Improvements occur in small changes, rather than major or structural overhauls.

Continuous improvement isn’t about totally reinventing the wheel. Moreover, it doesn’t happen instantaneously. Instead, businesses should implement small changes in stages. While it is about the big-picture view, that doesn’t mean it should happen all at once. That’s often a mistake that can cause more damage to your organization.

If you attempt to completely overhaul long-established procedures and processes, you not only risk causing damage to your organization by doing it too quickly, but you are also likely to upset the employees involved, who may worry about why these changes are taking place and how they could affect them. They could very well be resistant to these changes and make it more difficult to pull them off. 

Additionally, it’s also easier to see how different changes are affecting the overall business when you make them slowly and incrementally. It will be more difficult to measure the impact of huge, monumental changes that occur all at once — and you certainly want to be able to see how your improvements are actually, well, improving your business!

Principle #2: Employees’ ideas have merit.

Not only that, but they can often be extremely valuable. Often, some of the best ideas don’t come from leadership but from the workers themselves, the ones who are in the trenches dealing with the day-to-day issues you probably rarely deal with personally. They are the ones who can tell you about issues with resources, such as equipment, or procedures and processes. 

Employees are also frequently the ones with the ideas for solutions. After all, they’re the ones who understand the problems the best. Don’t just consider the ideas from mid-level employees, either. Use a bottom-up approach. An intern or assistant could very well have an inspired idea, just as a director could. If you’re focused on continuous improvement, then you must hear all the voices in the room.

That doesn’t mean ideas that come from leadership aren’t valuable. It just means that you should use them in conjunction with ideas that come from employees, too. This is often the golden ticket that leads to great success within your organization — collaboration.

Principle #3: It is rarely expensive to implement small improvements.

Many small — but no less important — changes are neither terribly difficult nor exorbitantly expensive to implement. In fact, you should try to prioritize the changes that are the most cost-effective (assuming there aren’t absolutely critical ones you need to make immediately). This is often relatively straightforward, since you may well be faced with reducing waste — equipment that’s not working correctly or contributing anything to the business, procedures that are eating up time rather than contributing and so on.

If you manage to make small changes with little expense that have bigger impacts, then you, your team and leaders will be able to see firsthand that continuous improvement has a real effect on the organization and may be more willing to continue with your plans.

Principle #4: Everyone is responsible for continuous improvement.

Just as employees are involved in continuous improvement in terms of generating ideas, they are also responsible for the implementation of those ideas. In other words, they are integral participants in manifesting change within their organization. That means everyone is an “owner” of their ideas and must be closely involved in making the improvements happen.

This will help get the ideas off the ground. When people feel responsible for their ideas, they will be more enthusiastic about making them happen — and they will also take responsibility for bringing their visions to fruition. 

To be clear: this isn’t about assigning blame. Instead, it’s about giving everyone the space to be closely involved in improving the organization and help them believe in the mission of continuous improvement. The leaders will still be involved, too — to both oversee individual initiatives and keep track of the overall progress of change within the organization — but as much as possible, they should be able to have the agency to act independently in carrying out their own ideas. 

Remember, too, that continuous improvement is everyone’s job, and that includes the boss. They shouldn’t just sit on the sidelines as a cheerleader or step in when problems arise; they must also be actively involved in implementing improvements.

Principle #5: We must learn from and reflect on our mistakes.

A key part of continuous improvement is reflection. There will always be mistakes, no matter what measures you’re attempting, especially when you’re doing it for the first time. Instead of dwelling on these mistakes, teams must reflect on them in order to learn lessons and grow from them. 

Everyone should be involved in the feedback cycle, delivering thoughts and suggestions on the process, the individual actions and the outcomes. Stay in constant communication with employees and colleagues about how changes are going, however small, and ensure managers are encouraging throughout. That doesn’t mean they should coddle employees — rather, they should provide substantive feedback and constructive criticism wherever possible, while offering ample coaching to motivate their employees.

Principle #6: Continuous improvement is a continuous process.

Remember that continuous means ongoing. That means there is no conclusion or finite end. As an organization, you must always be striving to improve.

In order to truly make the process continuous, you must devise a way to measure the results of your efforts. This is how you can track your progress and find out if your efforts to make change happen are really paying off. As a team, devise a methodology for measuring results. This will incorporate your goals for specific projects, as well as incremental benchmarks. Of course, you’ll also collect data along the way. Taking all these metrics into account will allow you to improve the process further going forward.

Qualitative data is also important to your success. Gather feedback from the people involved in different changes and improvements, no matter how minor they may seem. This is another means of measuring your success and continuing the cycle of improvement. 

How to use these principles for continuous improvement

So, how do you actually make continuous improvement happen at your organization? In order to effectively use these principles in action, start with establishing a clear methodology for utilizing these principles. Make everyone at your organization involved with these efforts aware of the methodology you’re employing, including the list of principles (with their explanations) outlined above. 

Devise a plan for overall continuous improvement and each individual change you attempt to implement. You should also come up with a strategy for brainstorming ideas from your team as part of this process. Determine the key players involved, the resources and tools needed, a timeline and the goal, with benchmarks. 

As you gain experience working with this process, you’ll become more comfortable with making changes and honing a process that works for you.

Continuous improvement processes to take your efforts to the next level

How do you get started? If you’re in search of a structure to get your continuous improvement efforts off the ground, these go-to, established methods can help.

Kaizen

Kaizen is a compound word derived from the Japanese words kai, meaning improvement, and zen, meaning good. Kaizen is a commonly used method of continuous improvement that focuses on collaboration among employees of all types and at levels of the organization. The principle behind the model is that working together will allow you to achieve stronger results. It’s often used in industries such as manufacturing.

The Kaizen model is a lean process that depends on the input of all team members, from low-level to high-level, to create a system for incremental improvement without the business. You’ll realize many (or even all) of the benefits listed above, such as producing better-quality products, reducing waste and improving employee and customer satisfaction.

The process ultimately puts a face — or, rather, several faces — to the process and humanizes it, encouraging people to work together and get to know their colleagues. And while teamwork is certainly a huge part of it, it’s also about independence and ownership of ideas.

Beyond the obvious benefit of improving processes; Kaizen engenders teamwork and ownership. Teams take responsibility for their work and are able to make improvements to enhance their own working experience. Most people want to be successful and proud of the work that they do and Kaizen helps them to achieve this while benefitting the organization.

The Kaizen process incorporates six key stages:

1. Define and identify the problem itself.

2. Gather the facts. 

3. Develop potential solutions and identify the best one.

4. Implement the best solution.

5. Measure and analyze the results.

6. Repeat to create and hone a standardized process.

PDCA

PDCA stands for plan, do, check and act. The words in the acronym each correspond to a stage in the continuous improvement model:

Plan: Identify an opportunity for improvement and understand the scope of the problem. Develop several strategies for addressing the problem. Analyze each of the potential plans thoroughly before choosing the best one for this project.

Do: Put the strategy into action (without expecting it to be problem-free immediately). You should choose something relatively small for your first go — something that won’t disrupt your organization or have irreversible consequences. 

Check:  Assess the results of the “do” step, analyzing what went right and what went wrong. Keep repeating the entire process until you achieve your desired results.

Act: Since the process is continuous, keep reviewing the problem and honing your procedure for improvement.

Like all continuous improvement models, PDCA has no finite conclusion. It can be used for a wide range of scenarios. 

Six Sigma

Along with continuous improvement, the Six Sigma method is about lean processes and standardizing procedures within an organization. When you are able to eliminate discrepancies, you’ll be able to better predict outcomes and identify hiccups within an organization’s overall methodologies.

The Six Sigma method optimizes performance and output to achieve the many benefits of continuous improvement models, eliminating waste and maximizing quality. The process leverages data and statistical analysis to address improvement in several respects within an organization. This is perhaps the most standardized continuous improvement model of the ones described here, too.

The methodology is so well regarded, defined and highly structured that people gain certifications in the processes, which indicates that they are experts in this continuous improvement methodology. Specialists also have different roles in the process.

No matter which methodology you follow, continuous improvement is critical to the success of your organization. There are so many benefits to implementing these principles. Is it time to start using them at your business?

About the Career Expert:

 Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn with her demigod/lab mix Hercules. She specializes in education, technology and career development. She also writes satire and humor, which has appeared in Points in Case, Little Old Lady Comedy, Jane Austen’s Wastebasket and The Haven.

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