Continuous improvement is the art of relentlessly attempting to make processes better. It is an all-the-time thing. It includes both the reduction of costs (primarily through waste reduction), or the increase of sales by offering better products and services. Regardless, it is the mindset that job satisfaction should come from improving one’s environment.
Continuous improvement has this basic tenet: you are never done making things better. As soon as something is implemented, there is already an opportunity to improve it. There is no such thing as perfect, and there is no best way to do something. There is always, always, always a better way.
Continuous improvement is the umbrella term that covers many of the specific philosophies—Lean, Six Sigma, TPS, Theory of Constraint, JIT, etc. It even covers things like problem solving and hypothesis testing.
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Continuous improvement is a mindset. I had a senior boss once who was a huge advocate of continuous improvement. He greatly rewarded those on his team who shared the continuous improvement mindset and constantly strove to make things better. He loved seeing big results from projects. But as soon as he saw them, instead of saying ‘Great work, take the week off’ he would say ‘Great work—do you think we could squeeze 3 extra percent out of the next project?’ He never let anyone rest on their laurels.
He knew that what was considered a great process last year could become a mediocre one this year if there was no more improvement on it. He knew that the competition was already trying to catch up to us and pass us by. He was, fortunately, keenly aware of this in himself, and made jokes about it. He was also clear about what the expectations were, and how he would evaluate success.
Problems arise when the push for better gets confused with a lack of appreciation. Leaders should always make sure that they show appreciation for those that work for them.
Continuous improvement also might buck the natural order of things in your brain. Many people need closure on things. They have trouble with the concept that they will never be complete in their journey. Imagine how you would have reacted in school if the first month, an 80% was a B, but the next month it was an 82%, and the following month, it was an 84%, and so on. If you started out as an A student with a 90%, you would soon find yourself a B student when the improvement demands caught up with you. Continuous improvement can have a demoralizing effect if leaders and workers don’t address this aspect of it. Managers must take into account the effect CI has on the people who have to continually get better.
To accomplish this, they can make sure that successes are routinely recognized. They can acknowledge good faith efforts, even if unsuccessful, as part of the continuous improvement process—not all efforts will be successful.
One warning: make sure that ‘rising tide’ results are not overly rewarded. In a great economy, sales may boom. Don’t over-reward a sales team that merely matches the increase of the economy. Likewise, recognize good effort in a bad situation.