The concept of continuous improvement is an important element found in both Lean and Agile practices. In the Seven Principles of Lean Development, continuous improvement is weaved throughout. The principles of building quality in and reducing waste, for example, require a mindset of continuous improvement. In Agile, continuous improvement shows up in iterative development and shortened feedback loops, among other principles.
Whether your business is a start-up or a multinational corporation, understanding the importance of continuous improvement is key in today's constantly changing environment. Using it at a small scale can help your team operate more effectively. Implementing it at a large scale—as a top priority—can help your business stay ahead of the competition.
But this kind of behavior doesn’t just happen. While some people have a natural drive to keep improving their skills and the results they produce at work, others prefer to stay in their comfort zones, never questioning the way things are done.
Companies must communicate the value and importance of continuous improvement and build it into every aspect of the business as a disciplined strategy. They must train their employees to study internal processes and create ways to make them more efficient.
Common benefits include:
- Improved product quality
- Increased efficiency and productivity
- Decreased cost
- Reduced waste
- Increased employee satisfaction and teamwork
- Customer satisfaction
Useful Links about Continuous Improvement
The following information on the Planview website can be useful in your continuous improvement journey:
- Kanban is a method for optimizing the flow of value through a process that uses a visual pull system. The three key terms to remember from this definition are visual, flow, and process.
Term Value Visualization Kanban harnesses the innate human desire to consume information visually, rather than contextually. Flow Once you can visualize the work, Kanban promotes an emphasis on the flow of that work, letting you can optimize your Process Kanban’s primary focus is to increase performance (that is, customer value) through process improvement.
- Kanban is process-agnostic; it doesn’t care what your process is, making it ideal for a wide range of business disciplines.
- Kanban consists of three main components: Boards, lanes, and cards, as described in the following table:
Component Represent ... Boards A process where work arrives and business value is delivered. Lanes The activities (process steps) that are performed within the process to deliver business value. Cards The work items and actions that have business value you can deliver.
- Kanban consists of the following practices, which—if applied effectively—allow teams and organizations to get the most value from the method:
- Visualize the work and workflow.
- Limit work in progress (WIP).
- Make process policies explicit.
- Implement feedback loops.
- Manage the flow of work.
- Improve collaboratively.
- Evolve experimentally.
When thinking about Kanban from a value perspective, consider this example of a Kanban maturity model, where each level represents the maturity journey of an organization:
LEVEL 1 – Visibility: This first maturity level is where you process and visualize work through real-time work status updates to enable cross-team alignment and manage dependencies. Essentially, this means managing the work across your value streams through visualization.
LEVEL 2 – Manage flow: At this maturity level, you can identify and resolve bottlenecks and remove any impediments to work that is flowing through your process and apply Kanban practices such as implementing work in progress limits. The goal of this level is to optimize your process to improve the speed and predictability of delivering business value.
LEVEL 3 – Measurement: At this maturity level, you not only can visualize the work and actively manage flow, but you’re also using the data your boards generate to gather insight into delivery trends. This means using metrics to help answer questions, identify problems, and to identify process-improvement opportunities.
LEVEL 4 – Continuous improvement: This level is less about the tool you use and more about the culture and behaviors within your organization that promote a continuous improvement mindset. The role of the Kanban method is to bring issues and problems to the surface, not to solve the underlying challenges causing them. It lets you continuously perform many small experiments to see if you can continuously improve your processes; a lot of small improvements can add up to a large one!
Kanban and Continuous Improvement
Understanding the relationship between Kanban and continuous improvement can give teams insight into where work gets stuck or blocked. Kanban is intended to be an evolution, not a revolution. The longer you work with and observe your process, the more you will see ways for improvement
To get your team engaged in the habit of continuous improvement, begin by tracking the following metrics:
|Metric to Track||Description|
|Total work in progress (WIP)||Work that is in progress consists of all the tasks that have been started but are not yet completely finished on your team’s kanban board. By limiting the number of tasks that can be in progress at any one time, no new tasks should be started until one of the outstanding tasks already in progress is completed.|
A blocker typically signals an unfinished dependency, a defect, or an unavailable skillset. Focus on the following things when measuring blockers:
|Throughput||Throughput is the number of tasks that are completed over a specific time period. An easy way to start tracking throughput is to record how many tasks were completed at the end of each week.|
|Lead time||Lead time is the total amount of time it takes a card to travel across the entire board. The clock starts when a card is pulled onto the board and stops when it reaches the Done lane.|
Incorporate Feedback Loops
You should constantly be striving to improve your processes by incorporating feedback loops, which provide opportunities for learning, planning, and review. The goals of feedback loops are to enable you to get things done, to do the right things, and to do those things better. A well-designed network of feedback loops acts as an enabler for alignment and coordination of value delivery across your organization and they can help nurture a culture of learning by sharing knowledge on successes and challenges.
One example of a feedback loop could include:
- PI/quarterly planning events where teams can align around value, estimate what can be delivered, and highlight dependencies across teams.
- Feature demonstrations that provide a view into the most recent features delivered by teams. This highlights the progress made within the program increment.
These two events provide a feedback loop, because they elicit feedback from the people doing the work as well as feedback from the business owners, the sponsors, and customers of the work that’s being delivered. This helps them answer the questions such as, “Are we doing the right things?” and “How can we do things better?”
Other opportunities for feedback might include:
- Daily stand-up meetings that provide an internal feedback loop for the teams doing the work. These meetings address questions such as, “Who is working on what?”, “Do we have any blocked work?”, and “Does anyone need help?”
- Inspect and adapt events:
- Retrospectives to reflect successes and challenges of the previous program increment.
- Problem-solving workshops based on opportunities for improvement that have been identified.
- Using boards as a tool for discussion in meetings.
Continuous Improvement in Lean
Continuous improvement is one of the pillars of a Lean environment.
- Eliminate Non-Value-Adding Activities
- To begin continuous improvement in Lean, take a critical look at the current state of your company. Identify areas of waste that can be eliminated as a first step. Look for opportunities where you could make better use of your employees’ experience, talents, and skills to produce better results for customers.
- Define Waste
- Sorting out what waste can be cut and what can only be minimized is a challenge. For example, work that never gets completed and the time spent on the original issue is lost time—waste.
- Develop Your Own Kata
- It is not difficult to implement a kata of continuous improvement in Lean, but it requires discipline and a mindset that growth is not optional. Continuous improvement lets each person set objectives for how they can improve, then work fiercely towards those goals. Discuss bumps in the road not as insurmountable mountains, but as occasions to shine when the answer is discovered. Turn obstacles that inevitably arise into opportunities to improve.
- Continuous Improvement in Lean
- Everything is open for improvement if we are open to the idea of making changes.
Use these techniques to guide implementation of continuous improvement in Lean. Eliminate the wastes that might be keeping your organization from reaching its full potential.
Continuous Improvement Tools and Techniques
Learning about continuous improvement but not sure how to implement it? Well, here are a few actionable ways to help you and your team get started.
Asses the Current State
First, it’s important to assess the current state of your team or organization.
- What’s done well?
- Where are the struggles?
- What seems broken?
- What is starting to crack under the pressure of growth?
Once you have analyzed your current state, the next thing to do is try these continuous improvement tools and techniques. It’s a great way to energize people around change!
Apply Continuous Tools and Techniques
Kanban helps you visualize, manage, and optimize your workflows.
You create a “picture” of your work harnessing the power of visual information. Seeing how your work flows within your team’s process lets you not only communicate status but also give and receive context for the work.
Kanban hinges on the fundamental truth that you can’t get where you want to go without first knowing where you are.
There are four big ideas in Kanban:
- Visualize your process.
- Limit work in process.
- Focus on flow.
- Continuously improve.
Kanban can be used to manage individual, team, or even organization-wide work.
The A3 process is a problem solving tool Toyota developed to foster learning, collaboration, and personal growth in employees. The term “A3” is derived from the particular size of paper used to outline ideas, plans, and goals throughout the A3 process (A3 paper is also known as 11” x 17” or B-sized paper). A3s provide vision and structure to big-picture improvements and provide a structured approach to problem solving used by Lean and Agile organizations.
The purpose of an A3 is to:
- Document the learning, decisions, and planning involved with solving a problem.
- Facilitate communication with people in other departments.
- Provide structure to problem solving, to maximize learning.
A3s usually include the following elements:
- Current condition
- Cause analysis
- Target condition
- Implementation plan
- Follow-up and benefits
A3s are useful for planning, especially for work conducted across cross-functional teams. Teams and organizations can also use A3s to implement continuous improvement ideas.
Plan – Do – Check – Act (PDCA) Cycle
Similar to the scientific method, the PCDA cycle is a way of identifying and systematically testing hypotheses.
The four steps of the PDCA Cycle are:
- Plan: Identify an opportunity and plan for change.
- Do: Implement the change on a small scale.
- Check: Use data to analyze the results of the change and determine whether it made a difference.
- Act: If the change was successful, implement it on a wider scale and continuously assess your results. If the change did not work, begin the cycle again.
A PDCA example follows this section.
Gemba walks keep leaders and front-line workers on the same page.
Gemba walks are informal, casual opportunities for leaders to get a sense of what’s happening in the organization, to use another Japanese term, going to the gemba – the place where things are really happening. Executive sponsorship is a key component of practicing continuous improvement—and executives can’t support initiatives wholeheartedly if they don’t understand the problems behind them.
The 5 Whys
The 5 whys encourage inquisitive thinking and effective problem-solving and are used as a thinking tool for identifying the root causes of problems.
Using the 5 whys, teams practicing continuous improvement are able to:
- Move past blame.
- Think beyond the specific context of a problem.
- Identify a proper, sustainable solution to resolve the issue.
Start with a problem statement, and then ask “why” until the root cause is revealed, and the answers become absurd.
Here is an example a marketing team might experience:
Problem: Our blog writing process is slow.
- Why? Blogs are usually tossed around between several team members and go through several editing cycles.
- Why? Because we don’t have anyone owning that process, so it seems like it’s everyone’s responsibility and no one’s responsibility at the same time.
- Why? Because we never decided on a clear process for blogging.
- Why? Because … we’re busy?
The last response here is a little absurd, of course. The root cause seems to have been revealed after the third Why: The team never created a process for blogging; therefore, blogging doesn’t follow a process, therefore the process is slow. Instead of pointing fingers, the team can now work together to create an effective, streamlined blogging process with clearly defined roles and steps.
Value Stream Mapping
Value Stream Mapping helps organizations focus on structuring processes around customer needs.
Lean value stream mapping is gaining momentum in knowledge work because it encourages systems thinking, resulting in better communication, more effective collaboration, and more team wins. Any team can enjoy improved productivity and collaboration by mapping their process.
Whether you choose advanced mapping software and complex metrics, or a simple approach like gathering around a whiteboard and defining the various steps involved, teams can begin to enjoy the benefits of value stream mapping in seeing their product, project, or service from start to finish.
Continuous Improvement Implemented in a Business Environment: PDCA
The PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Act) cycle is straightforward. It takes a large commitment to embed the methodology into the foundation of a company, however, it doesn’t have to be used at a large scale to be beneficial. It can begin on a small scale, with one team or in one department, and then expand from there into other areas of the business.
Walking through these four steps of the PDCA model can bring improvements to any process.
In this first step, the focus is on defining the problem and coming up with an approach that you will test to solve the problem, asking questions like:
- What is the scope?
- What is the target?
- What is the best approach for the outcome you are trying to achieve?
This includes defining a team and planning a timeline.
You can use this step to execute a full plan or to implement a pilot solution at a smaller scale. Either way, this is the opportunity to experiment; try something new to see if and how it works. The key here is to record the steps taken in the process and collect data and feedback along the way.
This is the opportunity to study the chosen approach and evaluate the results, compared to the expectations when planning. Ask questions like:
- Was the approach successful / effective?
- Did it work as planned? Why or why not?
- What worked and what didn’t work?
If the approach was unsuccessful, go back to the first step (planning), considering what you learned and why it didn’t produce the intended results. If it was successful, proceed to the next step.
Taking the learnings and feedback from the previous steps into consideration, implement the new solution fully. This doesn’t mean it’s the final solution or the only approach. Instead, it becomes the new baseline against which to continue to measure for future improvements.
Much of the importance of continuous improvement lies in what a business does after they’ve cycled through these steps. In a typical business environment, when improvements are made in a process, those improvements become “the way things are,” not to be questioned until something goes wrong. In continuous improvement methodology, every improvement becomes the new baseline for the next.
Regardless of the degree in which an organization practices continuous improvement, the results will show up incrementally over time. The key is to start somewhere; pick an area of the business that needs refinements and see how the methodology works.