Every business wants to improve–or should want to. And although there are many different ways for companies to get better, there IS a nice, existing continuous improvement toolbox that businesses can use from the first steps all the way to the maturity of their continuous improvement journey.
In this article, we’ll profile some of the standard continuous improvement techniques, with a focus on those that organizations should implement first, and we’ll toss in a few other ideas related to learning theory and organizational learning that you might not find in other resources dedicated to continuous improvement methodologies.
We hope you find this article helpful and that it moves you forward on your own continuous improvement adventure. And we invite you to touch base with us to ask any questions you may have on the topic.
Finally, because the P-D-C-A cycle is one of standard and proven tools used for continuous improvement in workplaces throughout the world, we’ve created a free P-D-C-A Cycle infographic that you can download for free.
Below is a good list of tools and methods you can use to improve your company’s continuous improvement efforts. Let us know what you think and please share your own as well.
Create a Culture of Continuous Improvement
Your continuous improvement efforts may not take off, and if they do they’re unlikely to be sustainable, unless you develop a workplace culture that embraces continuous improvement.
This includes making sure workers know their contributes are not just welcome by desired and valued. It also means being sure managers follow through on that, not only welcoming improvement suggestions but also implementing them when possible (and explaining why they don’t get implemented in other cases). Managers also need to provide effective guidance while doing what they can to help workers succeed, including giving appropriate feedback.
Check out our article on Developing a Culture for Continuous Improvement, our article on Facilitating Change at Work, and our free downloadable Deming’s 14 Points for Management infographic for more on this.
Develop Psychological Safety
Research shows that we learn, improve, and innovate more effectively when (1) we learn as a team and (2) when that team has what’s known as psychological safety.
Psychological safety is something that well-regarded researcher Amy Edmonson has studied for a long time and written about well. You may be familiar with Google’s Project Aristotle, which is often cited in discussions of psychological safety and its benefits on teamwork, learning, and innovation.
Here’s how Edmonson explains psychological safety:
Psychological safety is broadly defined as a climate in which people are comfortable expressing and being themselves. More specifically, when people have psychological safety at work, they feel comfortable sharing concerns and mistakes without fear or embarrassment or retribution. They are confident that they can speak up and won’t be humiliated, ignored, or blamed. They know they can ask questions when they are unsure about something. They tend to trust and respect their colleagues.
Check out our article on Psychological Safety for more on this.
Be a Learning Organization
Research has identified that organizations that learn, continually improve, and innovate more effectively often have similar traits, and it’s organizations with these traits that continually improve and innovate well are known as learning organizations.
Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline lists five traits of a learning organization:
Another seminal work on learning organizations is titled Is Yours a Learning Organization? The authors Garvin, Edmonson, and Gino list these three requirements for a learning organization:
- Supportive learning environment
- Concrete learning practices and processes
- Leadership that encourages and reinforces learning
Help Employees Develop Learning Agility
Although team learning and being a learning organization are important for continuous improvement, it’s also important to not only support employees as they learn but to help employees learn how to learn. This trait is known as learning agility.
Having learning agility involves having a positive outlook toward your ability to learn; being comfortable with ambiguity; knowing when to learn and when to rely on performance support (job aids, etc.); spending less energy and time trying to memorize facts and more time learning, making use of, and consistently reflecting upon mental models; being aware of and vigilant for cognitive biases that lead us to make poor decisions; utilizing deliberate practice in learning efforts; learning from failure; taking time for reflection, group discussions, and metacognition; and more.
Check out our article on learning agility and learning to learn for more on this.
One of the easiest ways to get started on the continuous improvement journey, and one of the most common recommendations for doing so, is to implement 5s from lean manufacturing.
In short, 5S is a way to better organize the workplace. Each “S” in 5S is a step in the process, and they stand for:
- Sort–sort the materials at your workplace and remove materials you don’t need
- Straighten–straighten the workplace and remaining materials, putting materials in logical places
- Sweep or sanitize–clean the workplace and make a schedule for keeping it clean and orderly
- Standardize–develop SOPs/standardized work for keeping things sorted, orderly, clean, and efficient
- Sustain–do what’s necessary to sustain your 5S efforts
Standardized work is the process of figuring out the best way to perform job tasks, documenting those words, and making sure workers known the best ways.
The idea of listing standardized work in an article on continuous improvement may at first seem counter-intuitive. After all, you might think standardized work would lead to stagnation and lack of change instead of continuous improvement.
But there are two additional points to keep in mind. The first is that it’s important to bring employees, and in particular new employees or employees who are new to a specific job task, up to a “best-practice” baseline based on current understanding of the best way to perform a task.
And the second is that even though standardized work documents what an organization currently believes is the best way to do a task, the emphasis is on “currently believes.” In organizations devoted to continuous improvement, employees are always not only welcome but encouraged to suggest improvements to standardized work (often through the process of kaizen, discussed below).
An additional thought to keep in mind in terms of standardized work and it’s continual re-evaluation and improvement is that it’s very important not only to rely on employee suggestions from processes like kaizen but it’s also important for managers to study work as it’s actually performed, and in particular the difference between work as planned and work as performed, by talking about the real job with the workers who perform the job. In occupational safety, this is something referred to as the difference between “the blue line and the black line.”
Check out our What Is Standardized Work? article for more on this.
In lean manufacturing, there are two things that fit under the “kaizen” bucket.
The first is just known as kaizen, while the second is is known as a kaizen event. They’re both similar, with an emphasis on getting employee involvement for workplace improvements, but there are some differences as well.
Kaizen is something that an individual worker does (actually, something that each individual worker does). Kaizen empowers the individual worker to make small changes intended to create improvements. In some versions, the employee can make those changes on his or her own; in other versions, the employee suggests the changes to a supervisor.
The basic idea behind kaizen is that if you begin implementing many small positive changes, the cumulative positive effect of those changes will become significant over time.
A kaizen event, on the other hand, is a team-based process improvement activity, and it’s typically focused on one “thing:” a work process, a work area, or something similar. You create a kaizen event team, ask them to focus on that one aspect, and try to come up with improvements during a more extended process that may last a day, a few days, or even a week.
The Plan-Do-Check-Act Cycle is an effective problem-solving and continuous improvement tool because it gives us a way to evaluate if our continuous improvement efforts really did create improvement.
It’s easy enough to make a change that you THINK is going to lead to positive results, improving efficiency and productivity, and then not do your due diligence and check to see if it really did lead to positive change (and if you should stick with it, roll it out on a larger scale, or reverse course). That’s what the P-D-C-A Cycle is intended to avoid–it makes us more evidence-based and data-driven in our continuous improvement efforts.
The four steps of the P-D-C-A cycle are:
- Plan–recognize an opportunity for positive change and make a plan for creating that change
- Do–implement the change in a small test, studying its effect
- Check–gather your data from the small test, analyze the data, and figure out what you’ve learned
- Act–take action based on your data and analysis, incorporating the change in a wider manner if it was beneficial or making more modifications if the data doesn’t support the original change
For more on the P-D-C-A Cycle, download our free P-D-C-A infographic.
Gemba walks are when a manager or supervisor gets out of his or her office and walks through the work area (gemba is Japanese, it means “the real place,” and it can be roughly thought of as “the work area” or “where work is really done” in this context).
During a gemba walk, it’s important to:
- Be observant and see what’s really happening
- Ask workers questions (instead of telling them things, correcting them, or discipling them)
We’ve discussed already the importance of studying real work. Gemba walks are a great way to do that, and it’s a great way for a supervisor to learn about the real work being done directly from workers.
Read this article to learn more about gemba walks.
Value Stream Mapping
The process of value stream mapping begins by drawing a schematic that represents your current production process(es). You then determine which steps or aspects add value and which don’t. You then sketch out an “ideal state” in which you get rid of as many of the non-value adding steps or components in your process as possible.
Value stream mapping is a great way to get a better idea of your work process–again, we’re back to studying work as it really happens so you can then make improvements.
Check out our What Is Value Stream Mapping? article for more on this.
Kanban is a visual management tool for keeping track of the workflow.
Once kanban is implemented, you can use it to help identify bottlenecks in your work process and then create solutions.
For more on this, check out our What Is Kanban? article.
Teach and Use Problem-Solving Methods and Tools
We can all become more effective continuous improvement practitioners if we become more effective problem solvers.
- Fishbone diagram— Also known as an Ishikawa diagram, the fishbone diagram is a diagram in which you make a drawing like a fish skeleton, with a horizontal spine and “fish bones” angling up and down from the spine. The spine represents the problem and each bone represents one major cause of the problem or one group of related causes. Learn more about using the fishbone diagram as a problem-solving tool for continuous improvement in our 7 Tools of Quality article or our free 7 Tools of Quality downloadable guide.
- 5 whys?–The 5 whys is a problem-solving technique in which you continue asking “why” when presented with an explanation to a problem. By asking why over and over again, you’ll get a better understanding of the real cause of a problem. It’s not always true you’ll ask 5 times–just ask enough until you believe you’re at a true, foundational answer instead of at a superficial answer or a symptom instead of the cause.
- Root-cause analysis–Root-cause analysis is the process of investigating a problem to determine it’s real cause or causes. The goal, as was the goal of the 5 Whys? method, is to get down to real, foundational issues instead of settling for superficial explanations or symptoms of the problem. Determining a root cause can be trickier than it might seem, partly because we have cognitive biases–read more in our Tips for Finding Root Causes article.
- A3–A3 is a sequential problem-solving method. There are 7 steps to the A3 process: (1) background, in which you describe and clarify the problem; (2) current state, in which you study the current state, graph/draw it out, and get to know it better; (3) set targets and goals for your problem-solving effort; (4) root-cause analysis, including possibly the 5 Whys?; (5) proposed solution or counter-measures you think will address the problem; (6) implementation plan, in which you list steps of what must be done to solve the problem (including by whom and when); and (7) measure the results and confirm that your counter-measures were effective. Notice that in many ways, A3 is similar to the P-D-C-A Cycle with an emphasis on defining the problem, trying solutions, and gathering data and evidence to see if the solutions worked. For more on this, read our What Is A3? article.
- Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (FMEA)–FMEA is a way to analyze a product, process, service, or system, determine the different ways it can fail, determine the different effects of those failures, create a risk rating for each failure, determine controls or mitigations for those failures, and then implement solutions. For more on this, read our What Is FMEA? article.
The problem-solving tools listed above are useful and are ones that often come up in discussions of continuous improvement. In addition to these standard problem-solving methods, you might also want to consider implementing one or more of the following:
- Learning teams–learning teams are an activity that’s becoming increasingly common as a problem-solving tool, especially in occupational safety after a workplace incident has occurred. But learning teams can be used at work for reasons other than safety incidents, and in fact they don’t have to be used after an “incident,” at least in the negative sense, at all. The basic idea is that a learning team meets to discuss work as it really is and what happened on the day of the event. The goal at this point is to learn, and to learn by getting the input of a diverse group of workers involved. Then the learning team reconvenes to try to propose solutions. Learn more in our How to Conduct a Learning Team and HOP, Operational Learning, and Learning Teams articles.
- Design thinking–design thinking is a collaborative, iterative problem-solving tool borrowed from the worlds of product development and design. The central emphasis is on being human-focused–solving the real problem that the person affected is truly having–and that process begins by learning more about the affected person/people and their real needs and problems. You can learn more in our What Is Design Thinking? article.
- Systems thinking–using systems thinking perspectives and tools helps us learn how problems at work are caused by the interaction of many different elements at work instead of narrowly (and improperly) focusing on just one element. Systems thinking is a problem-solving tool that’s . You can learn more about this at our Using Systems Thinking for Workplace Performance Improvement article.
Additional Lean Manufacturing Tools
Lean manufacturing is all about continuous improvement. So even though we’ve listed some lean basics for you here–standardized work; gemba walks; kaizen and kaizen events; value stream mapping; and of course 5S–there’s still much to learn about learn and many more benefits to gain from lean.
For example, we haven’t mentioned kanban yet. And so much more…
Check out our What is Lean Manufacturing? article and download our Five Principles of Lean Manufacturing, 7 Wastes of Lean Manufacturing, and 3 Wastes of Lean (Muda, Mura & Muri) infographics, and stay tuned for even more articles from us on lean and lean-related issues in the near future.
Quality Management and Quality Tools
A solid quality management system and the use of basic quality methods and tools will also aid your organization’s continuous improvement efforts.
For more on this, you might find the following helpful:
- 7 Tools of Quality
- 7 Tools of Quality infographic
- Deming’s 14 Points of Management
- What Is the ISO 90001 Quality Management Standard?
- Quality Basics: PDCA and Risk Management
Six Sigma is a series of tools and methods for improving workplace processes. It’s often associated with Jack Welch and General Electrics.
Six Sigma tries to improve the quality of a process by identifying and removing the causes of defects as well as by reducing variability. It uses many empirical, statistical methods to do so, and it aims at a process in which 99.99966% of all opportunities to produce some feature of a part are free of defects.
Keep on Working for Continuous Improvement at Work
We hope you’ve found this article on implementing and sustaining continuous improvement efforts at your workplace helpful. As you see, we’ve listed many tools and methods that can assist you on your continuous improvement journey, and there are still many more to learn about beyond that.
Be sure to help yourself to all the free downloadable items related to continuous improvement in this article, including the P-D-C-A infographic immediately below, and
Don’t forget to download the P-D-C-A Cycle infographic before you go!
FREE PDCA Cycle Infographic
Download this free infographic of the Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) cycle commonly used for quality control, project planning, and continuous improvement.