I have been involved in continuous improvement activities in the workplace for many years. I have also experienced the continuous improvement journeys for dozens of other companies through conversations, tours, and presentations. As a result of my exposure to these activities, I think it is possible to capture the TEN key elements of continuous improvement common to all successful efforts. These elements apply, not only business processes and applications, but, continuous improvement in our own lives, as well. These apply to improving our golf game, improving our relationships, or improving our performance in anything.
These are the elements that drive all successful continuous improvement journeys:
- Recognition of the need to improve – The first step for any improvement journey is to recognize the need to improve. Without this realization, your mind will simply not fully engage in the journey for improvement. You may participate, but you will not be all in. Recognizing and believing that improvement is important provides the energy to take that first step. For teams, it is important that all members buy-in to the need to improve to ensure full engagement and participation.
- Demonstrating the benefits from improvement – It is one thing to realize the need to improve, but the journey to improvement is energized or fueled when we see the benefits of improvement. For example, you may believe that losing weight would improve your life. But, you buy-in when you realize the benefits you gain when you do so (e.g., better health, ability to do things you can’t do now, positive self-esteem, etc.). Unless we can see the benefit, our efforts are only temporary and, perhaps, half-hearted.
- Outlining the necessary steps or training needed to achieve improvement – Once you recognize the need for improvement and can see the benefits, it is time to develop an improvement plan. What will you do first? What after that? What training is needed? What tools are required? For example, to improve your golf game, you may need to outline a program of lessons and practice. For a weight loss program, you may need some nutritional counseling. For a team transformation effort, you may need to provide Six Sigma and Lean Manufacturing training to members. The essential element of this step is to develop a plan and obtain the needed tools that will allow your journey to be successful.
- Developing metrics that will us to monitor our progress – Every continuous improvement journey must have a method or way to gauge success. Otherwise, participants will fail to see the progress that is occurring. Progress almost always motivates individuals to greater effort and success. What measures will define success? How will you know when your continuous improvement journey is making strides? Identify these metrics and create a tool (e.g., spreadsheet, graph, table, etc.) that will allow you to monitor progress over time. Progress in golf is easily monitored through improved scores. Weight loss is easy to monitor. However, some continuous improvement journeys may require more subjective measures. Nonetheless, a method to monitor progress by some means is essential to continued success.
- Establishing aspirational, but attainable goals – Most individuals are competitive, at least to some extent. We enjoy victories! So, it is important to establish goals for improvement that we strive to defeat. Establishing goals against which we monitor progress is important for any successful continuous improvement effort. And, our goals should be attainable, but aspirational. By this I mean that the goal should be meaningful, not easily attained, but doable, if we put in the needed effort. Striving to achieve our 5K personal time target, our golf score goal, our weight loss goal, our educational aspirations, etc. helps to motivate us during the journey.
- Regular checkpoints to monitor progress – Monitoring our progress motivates us to keep striving and keep working to achieve our goals. Many experts say that, if possible, you monitor progress daily. That works for some continuous improvement efforts (e.g., weight loss), but may not be possible in other cases. In every case, though, regular checks to show how we are doing is an important element for ongoing success.
- Celebration for small and large successes – We need to recognize and celebrate those successes we do attain. Recognition is an important motivator and should not be ignored. Success breeds more success. So, recognizing that success will drive more.
- Establishing processes or systems to get you back on track – Occasionally, the continuous improvement train will get off track. We will have disappointments or delays or we may regress. Unless there are processes or systems to recognize this and shift the effort back on track, the journey may fail. Every continuous improvement effort will have barriers or temporary hiccups. We simply need to recognize this and work to reestablish the process and resume the plan we have outlined.
- Developing processes or activities to sustain or normalize gains – Once we see the gains or improvement desired, we must establish methods to sustain them. We must “normalize” the improvements or they will be lost. For example, once you have achieved your weight loss goals, unless you modify your lifestyle to include better eating habits or more exercise, it is likely that you will regain the weight. For business processes, unless you establish new systems to accommodate the improvements experienced, it is likely you will revert to the old, less efficient system. To keep the gains, you must make them the normal, expected way of operating.
- Establish your next aspirational target – Continuous improvement means you continually improve… the status quo is unacceptable, even if it is much better today than it was last month. Individuals or companies that are always upgrading their aspiration targets are the most successful. Resting on our laurels is not compatible with a continuous improvement culture or lifestyle. Once you achieve your target, establish a new one.
Whether you lead the continuous improvement effort for a $6B company or you are working to help your children maintain clean bedrooms, there are steps that can help ensure our success. The ten steps above are proven essential elements to many successful continuous improvement efforts — large and small. You might improve your success by ensuring you include these steps in your effort.
Have a fabulous day and keep plugging — we have no chance for success if we don’t put in the needed effort to attain it.