Continuous Improvement – Small Steps to an Incredible Goal

7 minutes, 26 seconds read

Continuous Improvement – Small Steps to an Incredible Goal

What you will learn

  • Getting Started with Continuous Improvement
  • Structuring a Continuous Improvement Program
  • Planning for Success of your Continuous Improvement Program
  • Kicking off a Continuous Improvement Program
  • Examples of Success


The only constant of the world is that it’s always changing, and this is particularly true in manufacturing. We see this in rapidly evolving technology and processes that seem to be always one step ahead of us. The key to keeping up with these changes is to invest time and energy daily to improve operations. While this is easy to say, in practice it’s a little more demanding. A strong Continuous Improvement (CI) program can help.

Getting Started

To drive the focus of your CI program, start with the most fundamental business principles: the customer is key. It all starts and ends with the people and companies who spend money in your company. Therefore, the first step in developing your CI program must be to identify and understand your customer’s needs.

Once you’ve established that satisfying your customers is the foremost goal, it’s time to encourage employees to speak up on how to do this. Collecting ideas from employees in an employee suggestion program is one of the best ways to learn what small changes can drive operational improvements.

Structuring a Continuous Improvement Program

To develop successful CI and employee suggestion programs, you need to establish a defined program structure. Organizations that have failed in establishing these programs often lack elements of structure that ensure ideas are heard and acted upon consistently.

You need to first encourage employees to share ideas that can help make customers’ experience more satisfying, then put a transparent structure in place to show how management is incorporating this feedback. This structure needs to sustain pillars of the program, whose importance together is greater than the sum of the parts.

1. Keep the focus on the customer

Impress upon employees a customer-driven decision-making process. Your workers need to empathize with your customers, but it is management’s job to give workers’ a perception of the customer’s needs and wants. By keeping the customer always at the forefront of decisions, you’ll find you sell not only a product or a service, but a satisfying experience.

2. Sow a culture

You can talk all you want about the importance of making customers happy, but if your employees don’t share this desire in their hearts then your talk is meaningless. To help employees embrace this essential customer-driven culture, make it a regular part of your policies, key value statements and even a standard training component. By emphasizing at many levels your corporate principle that the customer comes first, you’ll find workers at all levels of the organization prioritize efforts to make customers happy.

3. Teach Continuous Improvement tools

As a CI expert you have at your disposal a great set of tools and methodologies that can help all the members of your company analyze problems and make improvements to their daily activities. Make sure you’re always open to helping others apply these tools. With this teaching mindset, you become an improvement guru, someone your peers and employees can turn to with questions and suggestions about improvements.

4. Incorporate Continuous Improvement into daily routines

Make sure everyone within your organization understands the importance of the CI program. Spread the word through multiple channels that they need to stay focused on making processes as Lean as possible. Your competitors are strong and won’t hesitate to take advantage of a mistake or a slow response to market changes — a CI program keeps your company competitive and prepared to react quickly to anything.  

To this end, it is necessary to incorporate CI participation into managers’ routines. Make this a routine part of monthly meetings or quarterly results discussions. You can use these platforms to give updates about your progress, initiatives and KPIs. Find allies among your managers who will encourage the participation of the full staff.

5. Define milestones and long-term goals

It’s important to let staff know the CI efforts are paying off, but you can only do this with measurable goals in place. What will be the first successful turning point following the program implementation? What is the key objective for the first quarter? What is the desired result a year after program implementation? Take time to brainstorm around these metrics so that you have a goal for which to strive.

Strategies to Secure Engagement and Program Success

Your CI program won’t get off the ground without support from employees throughout the organization, so it’s important to have strategies in place that can get everyone aligned on the program value and direction.

1. Secure managers’ support

If you start a CI program without managers’ support and encouragement, your program is more likely to fail. The message to embrace CI efforts must come from the top and be reinforced at every level of the organization. You need to start strong from bottom to top.

2. Start in the gemba

Gemba — where the work happens — should be another starting point for your CI strategy. No one knows better what’s happening than the operators who work there. You cannot solve the problems in a meeting room: you need to go to the gemba and listen to the employees. Involving them in this process will help ensure employees embrace this CI culture you are developing.

3. Consider a pilot program

You can start the program as a pilot in an area known for active participation. This way you can test your approach with workers who are less likely to resist to change. Let them show you the opportunities they can find and use their feedback to improve the program as necessary. Strong results here will boost the impact of the program on your managers, and it will be more likely to gain managerial support as well. Starting with a pilot will also make it safe to explore new ways of marketing the program.

4. Realize you won’t change your world in a day

Everyone wants their projects and efforts to be successful the day after their implementation, but success takes time and patience. So instead of trying to revolutionize the processes, make sure you can fix the small pieces that can make a great difference. Sometimes the most rewarding improvements come from daily repetition avoidance — the reduction of obvious waste that no one seems to take care of “because it is part of the process.” If you can expend less effort and achieve a greater reward, it definitely should be a target for improvement.

Kicking Off Your Continuous Improvement Program

Is important to keep everyone up to date on the program results and continuously emphasize its importance. To do this, you must have a communication routine established within the company. Share resources through bulletins, screens and results meetings at least quarterly and make sure all associates know how to get involved in promoting the program through training or by making information about your program goals available within their departments.

Of course, the most critical item for a successful CI program is employee engagement. It’s important to keep the users engaged, let them know their ideas matter, so they know they are doing meaningful work. Every idea must come from the employees as a request to their managers, not the other way around.

Make sure to implement selected ideas as soon as possible. This shows employees that you’re serious about making improvements. Be sure to provide feedback, even if you decide an idea is not right for implementation at this time or if there are policies in place that may conflict with the suggestion. Let employees know you’ve received their input and make sure they understand the reasons behind suggestions being turned down, so they can incorporate that feedback into future suggestions.

Continuous improvement consists of small, incremental changes, but these small changes pave the way for getting your full workforce onboard with process improvement. Let employees know that now is their chance to speak up about what the company needs to do to improve.

It may take a while to see results from your CI program. But with regular incremental results and continuous communication, you’ll find the program’s slow progress builds until the entire organization becomes committed to finding new ways to thrive in the ever-changing world.


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