Part 1 The Power of Small Changes: Continuous Improvement

What does “change” mean to your business? Is it through large projects or is integral to the way you work? Continuous Improvement is a long term approach of improving products and services through frequent, small changes. Could it help your business to thrive?

A three minute read

Sometimes the need for a major project may seem inescapable, with months of hard work and significant cost attached. Once complete, how likely is it that everything be perfect? Will the new processes stay set in stone until the next upheaval in a few years' time?

Large scale, lengthy projects often present complex risks and challenges, and it’s difficult for any business to commit significant resources when success isn’t guaranteed. Maintaining a competitive edge requires businesses to adapt their processes and methods to effect change faster. An alternative or perhaps complementary approach to breakthrough change, is to make smaller refinements on a regular basis. One approach that companies of any size can leverage for continuous, incremental improvement is called Kaizen. It originated in Japan and the word translates to mean change (kai) for the good (zen) and it is often referred to as Continuous Improvement or CI.

History of Continuous Improvement

Continuous improvement has its roots in lean manufacturing, a process pioneered by Ford more than 100 years ago which then gained prominence in the late 1940s when it was adopted, and further developed, by Toyota. At the time the fledgling Toyota car company realised that, in order to compete with the American car industry, it had to not only understand American mass production methods, but to be able to make them much better. Today, Toyota is admired by the world’s consumers for its products and by business leaders for its ability to turn a profit year on year. Much of this success can be attributed to the Toyota Production System (TPS), an original manufacturing philosophy that aims to make incremental improvements to standardised work to help maximise productivity.

This same theory of Continuous Improvement is used by Olympic athletes. They look for incremental refinements that gradually improve their performance as immediate and significant gain in ability might be unrealistic. This consistent approach to little and often improvement is what excels them into the world’s elite athletes.

Have you ever tweaked a job sheet, or perhaps made a checklist that makes it quick and easy for others to repeat a process? This is an example of continuous improvement. Put simply it’s a straight foward approach to improving the way work is done, so activities flow naturally and are easy to repeat.

Operational Savings

According to KaiNexus in 'The ROI of Continuous Improvement' the operational savings associated with Continuous Improvements can be massive

1 in 10 improvements save money …(each saving on average) $31,043 in the first year of implementation

1 in 4 improvements save time… (each saving on average) 270 hours in the first year of implement

Most successful changes not only save time and money, but can also make your team’s jobs easier (and hopefully more pleasant) to perform.

Companies that follow this principle of Kaizen or Continuous Improvement have a mindset that everything can be improved. They strive to achieve increasing levels of safety, satisfaction and quality.

Continuous Improvement: Step by step changes can increment to significant improvements with lower cost and minimised risks

Continuous Improvement: Step by step changes can increment to significant improvements with lower cost and minimised risks

The Accumulating Power of Tiny Gains

At times all businesses hit challenges that require them to significantly adapt or improve. It's tempting to focus efforts on finding those big solutions that can be implemented as fast as possible. Whilst this approach may sound good in theory, it's not always necessary to tackle big problems with big solutions. Risks and costs can be high, and often these attempts at change can lead to failure.

Continuous Improvement is an incremental and sustainable approach to change. It focusses on small, regular efforts to improve standardised work that are typically both low in cost and risk. Over time the accumulating effect of small improvements is often more powerful than attempts at radical change.

What is Standardised Work?

Standardised work is the habit of documenting and methodically utilising current best practice to complete a process. As this procedure is improved using continuous improvement methods, the new standard becomes the baseline for further improvements.

In Part 2 learn more about Standardised work, one of the most effective tools in continuous improvement.