Continuous Improvement, What Is It
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Continuous Improvement, What is it?

Continuous Improvement Definition

Continuous improvement is a never-ending effort to expose and eliminate root causes of problems; small-step improvement as opposed to big-step or radical improvement. Synonym: Kaizen

Many organisations use Continuous Improvement (or sometimes Kaizen) as their flagship name for a lean approach. However, what they mean is often not what they say or to misquote a UK TV advert ‘it does not do what it says on the tin’.

This raises two questions about continuous improvement:

  • What is Continuous Improvement (or Kaizen) and
  • What type of improvement is really necessary for an organisation.

In answer to the first we could say that Continuous Improvement is those small steps (or kaizen activities) usually taken by local teams in order to create a culture of local improvement. However, what I see the term used for by most businesses is ANY type of improvement, be it small steps, big leaps or complete business restructuring.

So, in answer to the second question, what system of improvement is really needed for an organisation? Well, I believe there are AT LEAST four systems that are required. These are:

1.    Continuous Improvement:

i.e. the small step improvements that I describe above undertaken by every small local team across the organisation that can be implemented in a few minutes to a few hours. This, I believe is about creating a real culture change in a business. However, rarely in my travels do I see companies really doing this type of improvement.

2.    Discontinuous Improvement:

i.e. the large, usually business level, projects that are required to make a major step change and require many weeks or months of work. These projects, typically led by senior staff or Black Belts, are usually far to large in number, take too long and end up meaning that senior staff end up drowning in project overload….does this sound familiar to you!!! If it does it is probably because you do not have an effective Continuous Improvement and Organisational Learning system in place.

3.    Process Improvement:

i.e. improvements in the end-to-end processes in the organisation. This is in theory what Value Stream Mapping should help with as it is important to look at what needs to be done right across the organisation not just in one department. However, Value Stream Mapping suffers from three drawbacks. First, it is usually done in isolation of a genuine local Continuous Improvement framework required to implement the changes. Second, it is usually done by experts such as Black Belts who then impose (or push) solutions on busy middle managers who don’t perceive the need for change. Third, mapping is usually only ever applied to one process, namely Order Fufilment…as this is the process almost always described in the textbooks on mapping.

4.    Extended Enterprise:

i.e. taking a similar process based view but here extending it further across as much of the extended enterprise as is possible.

I guess this raises a further two question in my mind: which of these systems of improvement are you managing, and more importantly which should you be managing?

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