Continuous improvement is the ongoing effort to improve products or processes — and, as such, it lives and dies on a company-wide ethos to strive for optimal outcomes in everything you do.
The concept of continuous improvement comes from Lean Manufacturing and has an original, Japanese name of ‘Kaizen’ meaning "change for the better". Why Japanese? Well, much like Kanban, the origins of continuous improvement lie in the success of Lean / Kaizen methods employed by Japanese manufacturing and business.
Today, thousands of companies strive to identify areas for continuous improvement. Building a culture of lean thinking and continuous improvement allows you to better your product or workflows, track the progress of each improvement, and identify any bottlenecks.
The four-step Plan, Do, Check, Act (PDCA) model is probably the most popular approach to organize and implement improvement efforts and build a continuous improvement culture. The model is a continuous feedback loop shown as a cycle because it is repeatable across the four stages:
Once you’ve recognized a problem in your product(s) or processes, you need to put a plan in place. What ideas do you have to improve it? How might that work? And what’s the desired outcome?
Now is the time to try out your improvement ideas — you can test drive the improvements on a smaller, pilot project if it’s a wide-scale change you’re considering. Approaching the improvement as a trial helps you work out if it solves the problem in a low-risk way.
Did your plan work? Have you achieved the desired outcome? If not, begin the cycle again.
If your plan did work, roll out the changes beyond your pilot project.
So far, we’ve spoken about the continuous improvement of products and processes, but this concept can be embraced across the entire business and in multiple departments too.
In any typical workplace, there are unending opportunities to work smarter, more efficiently, to collaborate better, to be more customer-centric, and so on. Continuous improvement can also be used in the workplace to keep staff engaged — ask them what they think can be improved upon and then follow the PDCA model.