With formal origins dating back to the 1930s, continuous improvement or CI has been around for almost 90 years now. The story began with Sakichi Toyoda, founder of Toyota, who manufactured automatic looms at the time. Sakichi began making small, continuous improvements adding up to major benefits for Toyota. By the 1950s, Toyota implemented quality circles leading to the development of Toyota’s unique, Toyota Production System, that focused on continuous improvement within quality, technology, processes, company culture, productivity, safety, and leadership. He claimed their CI efforts would result in faster delivery, lower costs, and greater customer satisfaction—and they did! In the 1980s, Masaaki Imai introduced the concepts of CI to the western world. His book, Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success, became a world-wide phenomenon. At the philosophy’s core, the primary objectives of CI are to identify and eliminate “muda” (waste) and “kaizen” (literally translating to “change good”), improve/standardize processes by re-engineering work flows thus making a task simpler, easier to perform, while accommodating demands, increasing speed and efficiency, improving product quality, and maintaining a safe work environment and excellent company culture. 

Though there is a plethora of information for organizations to learn about CI and its techniques, professionals are still struggling to grasp the concept of CI and its benefits. What’s even worse is that there have been several preconceived notions or myths about CI in the industry that’s affecting organizations to shy away from the initiative. So, here I am today, busting those myths for you!

“Continuous Improvement is only for manufacturing organizations”—No way!
You don’t have to implement CI methodology word for word. It’s not a crime to tailor CI techniques to your organization. Many professionals assume CI has a rigid methodology that doesn’t make sense for their organization. While some Lean Six Sigma and quality techniques do make more sense in a manufacturing environment, that doesn’t mean they can’t be customized for transactional processes. We need to begin to make a culture shift about CI and think about continuous improvement in a more subtle, flexible approach that can be adapted in any environment.

“Management does not understand/support Continuous Improvement” – Unfortunately, sometimes…
Management teams typically tend to support/respect CI initiatives in public. Why? Because it paints a pretty picture! While some may initially be fired up about implementing CI, many leaders will admit that the support does tend to yo-yo or drop at times. This is because management is generally concerned about the bottom line and day to day business execution. They are typically impatient and unable to see the prize in CI as its benefits aren’t always quick wins. My recommendation? Understand CI and its full range of capabilities and your organization’s current state thoroughly. If you decide to implement CI techniques into your organization, start small and asses how’s it working while keeping in mind that CI will not always be a proponent of instant gratification. With the right knowledge and expertise of implementing and maintaining CI initiatives, any organization can reach a new level of maturity and performance capability.

“My area does not need process improvement” –Are you sure?
Many times both the staff and or leadership team aren’t aware of their own internal issues. This could be for many reasons ranging from: lack/poor communication throughout the organization, KPIs/metrics are not being tracked/reported/analyzed correctly, sheer denial a problem exists, or they are simply operating on a baseless assumption that their organization is performing at its peak. There is also a possibility the staff/leadership is opposed to or uncomfortable with change. They could be accustomed to running the business a certain way and don’t want to change it. Before you rule out a CI initiative, big or small, understand your organization at all levels. I suggest a “Gemba” (direct translation, “the real place”) walk. A gemba walk essentially involves taking the time to watch how a process is done and talking with those who do the job. This will allow you to talk to the people in the front lines of your business. They are such a critical part to any work force and more likely than not, you will discover the pain points in your organization after speaking with them.

Continuous Improvement is only for large organizations” –Nope!
Many professionals assume that CI isn’t needed for small organizations—that it’s too big of an investment for a small or mid-sized company. This assumption is derived from the thinking that companies need to have a designated department/budget to take on these initiatives and that’s not true at all. All organizations may not have the business case for a CI or operational excellence resource/department but that doesn’t mean they can’t implement a CI culture or work stream within their existing teams. Creating a culture of CI will allow your workforce to develop professionally and empower your staff to find efficient solutions to everyday problems. You’ll be surprised at how innovative and strategic a tactical staff can become when you create a conducive environment for them to blossom.

“Continuous Improvement is too expensive” – False!
Effective CI should pay for itself or in the long run yield you benefits far more beneficial than the upfront investment. The goal is to implement activities that are sustainable and can ensure you long term savings while reaching the pinnacle of performance.

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Jaisheela Setty

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