How continuous improvement can build a competitive edge

What level of impact can continuous improvement achieve? One of our clients would say ten weeks. Why? That’s how much time they were able to save in their product testing process—cutting the time by more than 80%—through a large amount of small changes to how its engineering and testing teams collaborated.

What is continuous improvement?

Continuous improvement is an ongoing effort to improve all elements of an organization—processes, tools, products, services, etc. Sometimes those improvements are big, often they are small. But what’s most important is they’re frequent. Companies that excel at continuous improvement start with the belief that success comes from: 

  • Innovating “how” they do what they do (big and small).
  • Engaging all employees in sharing knowledge and generating improvement ideas.
  • Exploring better ways to deliver to customers and respond to changes in the external environment.
Core to a continuous improvement mindset is the belief that a steady stream of improvements, diligently executed, will have transformational results.

What does continuous improvement look like in action?

Fostering a continuous improvement culture is rooted in three practices:

Performance transparency starts with making goals public and cascading those goals (typically a balanced mix of financial and operational metrics) in a way that is tailored to individuals at all levels of the organization. Progress toward goals must be transparently tracked to give the frontline and management clear visibility into what is working and what needs work.

After conducting our Organizational Health Index (OHI) with one of our industrial clients, we saw an opportunity to create greater transparency among different areas of their operations. For instance, the company had capital assets that were poorly utilized, in part because they were shared across multiple teams that lacked the incentive to maximize the assets’ usage.

By instituting an easy-to-understand system to track overall utilization, the teams that used the assets instantly realized that low utilization was a bigger problem than any of them had realized, and it focused their creativity on finding new ways to make the assets more productive—leading to a 20% productivity increase in less than two months.

Knowledge sharing is critical to scale best practices across (and up and down) organizations. One of our clients became adept at deploying small cross-functional teams against any problem to break down the organizational silos that had previously prevented knowledge sharing.

The teams would collocate to promote informal and formal knowledge sharing and were given license to explore every idea and bring in additional expertise as needed. The team had to work together because no single team completely understood most problems “end-to-end.” But by working together in multi-week sprints, they were able to achieve 80%+ cycle time improvements.

Employee involvement is a necessity in continuous improvement organizations. Frontline employees are closest to the work, and thus typically have the richest insights on how their work can be done better. Capturing their perspectives is critical.

When our client struggled with morale among frontline managers, they went straight to the source. Through conversations with frontline management, leaders uncovered issues that needed to be addressed—insufficient onboarding, limited upward mobility and burdensome administrative duties that prevented them from effectively leading their teams.

Working with a coalition of frontline managers, the management team developed a set of focused interventions (many of which were led by managers now empowered to make the changes they sought) to expand opportunities for mobility, leadership development and mentorship, and to reduce waste in their daily workload.

Transformational results

Core to a continuous improvement mindset is the belief that a steady stream of improvements, diligently executed, will have transformational results.

Continuous improvement has helped clients across industries provide greater value to their customers. Are you looking to gain an execution edge for your company? Get in touch with us and check out our upcoming blog posts that will dispel several myths on creating continuous improvement cultures.

Learn more about our People & Organizational Performance Practice