What comes to mind when you think about continuous improvement? Hopefully you believe it’s a leadership responsibility we all share each and every day. “CI” doesn’t discriminate based on seniority, title, pay grade or job function. Good ideas can come from everywhere. And in a changing environment where what worked yesterday may not work best today, there is all kinds of opportunity.
That being said, continuous improvement isn’t easy and it doesn’t happen by itself. It requires the active involvement of as many people as possible… which brings me back to the question: how do you think about continuous improvement?
I’d like to share three questions I’ve found helpful when considering continuous improvements. I believe they work in just about any setting. Here they are:
Does the Customer Care?
Any customer centric organization ought to consider the customer experience implications of all both new and existing processes first and foremost. What does the customer think? Keep in mind, your customer may not care about many of the particulars; what internal system you use, who makes the decision, or whether you use FIFO or LIFO inventory accounting. Customers care about speed of service, ease of use, price, quality and support (for starters). If an existing process (or new initiative) doesn’t improve at least one aspect of the customer’s experience, that should raise a red flag – why are we doing it?
Does it Add Value?
Just because a customer doesn’t care, doesn’t mean a process inherently lacks value. The challenge is to build a case for it. Remember value is the difference of benefit and cost. Any time we eliminate one of the seven types of waste, we automatically increase value. The same is true for new initiatives. If a new idea adds more waste than benefits, it creates a net value deficit.
Think of an assistant who takes handwritten notes at a meeting. Then he types them and sends them to the meeting attendees and files the handwritten copies away. What is the value in taking and keeping the handwritten notes? The customer certainly doesn’t care. And if the notes can be produced (and reproduced) soft-copy right off the bat, it will save time and free up space – both of which have value. It’s a simplistic example, to be sure but it underscores the fact that opportunities for continuous improvement can come from virtually anywhere.
Are You Compensating for Someone Else’s Inaction?
Sometimes when we encounter problems, it’s easiest and time-efficient to address it ourselves in the moment. In the short-term. But unless we get to the root of the problem, it’ll just come creeping back up again. The leader’s role in this situation is to create clear cut areas of responsibility – and maintain the accountability to follow-through together as a team. It’s the difference between constant firefighting and a team commitment to “first time, right time, every time.” It’s easier said than done, but that’s true about most leadership responsibilities.
Remember, continuous improvement isn’t about cutting costs to their bare bones. It’s about creating value that can be shared by all the stakeholders of an organization. At the very least, it can help give your organization gain a comparative advantage over your competition.
What continuous improvement initiatives are you working on right now?