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Continuous Improvement Programs Done Right – 4 Lessons Learned

August 29th, 2012

continuous improvement playbookWe’ve recently had several discussions with companies who have dismantled their continuous improvement (CI) programs during the economic downturn and are now reviving them as their businesses stabilize.  It’s a pretty common theme of late.  As is natural, the tendency is to turn to the old playbook as a starting point. In almost every case, this is not a good idea.  We’ve learned a tremendous amount since those pre-crisis days.  Most of it was already in process and, as happens in every economic cycle, the downturn simply accelerated the learning cycle.

The old playbook and approaches for continuous improvement programs had some successes for sure but for most companies things are different now and approaches to continuous improvement need to align with the new reality.  Here are 4 simple things to keep in mind as you consider rolling out a new, or restarting an old, continuous improvement program:

      1. Alignment. More than ever, an initiative’s success depends on its activities link to the enterprise’s real priorities. This common sense notion always got lip service, but lip service isn’t enough these days.  Prioritize projects as a function of “if” and how much they move the needle on these priorities.  Make sure every single activity is linked, visibly. Don’t waste time, energy and resources on unaligned activities or your continuous improvement efforts will likely be short-lived.
      2. Business Focus. Drive the business and not the CI effort.  When you place the improving the business as the goal, it will pull the projects which, in turn, pull the knowledge needed to successfully solve problems. When you drive the CI program, you are building knowledge and capability simply for its own sake and trusting the demand to show up … a bad strategy.
      3. Right Fit, Right Now. Get everyone involved and give them right-fit knowledge and tools to improve their processes today.  Most people really do want to improve their workplace and the service or product they deliver their customer, so give individuals useful knowledge and tools, that they can use right now, not 6 months down the road. There is a massive body of methodologies, tools, knowledge, etc. you can push into the organization, but just because you can doesn’t mean you should.  Think “right-fit”, “useful now” ….
      4. Results, results, results.  Keep the organization focused and engaged by producing a positive return from the beginning.  Organizations need to see a return on the things they do.  Where they have a return, they invest more and do so with confidence and conviction.  Don’t expect organizations that are measured quarterly to think about CI in terms of multiple years.  It may be theoretically correct but it is unrealistic.

There are lots of things in the old playbook that violate these basic lessons.  The lessons had to be learned the hard way.  It’s why so many CI programs were dismantled during the crisis to begin with, instead of being part of what got organizations to the new world.  As we rebuild again, let’s apply what we learned right from the beginning.  CI programs did many good things pre-crisis. But we now have an even better opportunity to do improve and help our organizations drive forward.

As always, if you want to discuss any of this, feel free to contact me.

  1. Mark
    August 29th, 2012 at 12:36 | #1

    Spot on! I especially like #3, Right Fit, Right Now”. Many CI programs focused on building deep Lean Six Sigma knowledge and a lot of it was never used. Build a CI program that fits the culture and focus on 20% of the tools that can be used 80% of the time (sound familiar?). You’ll gain more acceptance for your CI program. THEN you can build more depth of knowledge, use more sophisticated tools, etc. as the program matures.

  2. Beverly Craig
    August 30th, 2012 at 08:03 | #2

    Thanks for being willing to share such great tools. Our company is utilizing LEAN techniques via a few internal resources who received training through a program at University of Tennessee. This was a good refresher for me.

  3. Lisa Cobble
    September 20th, 2012 at 02:15 | #3

    This is great common sense advice, and I also think it applies when a re-organisation occurs or a CI project is not going to plan. We should always sit back and re-assess to ensure we are still on track and budget / strategy times are always a good point of alignment.

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