2.2 Continuous Improvement

Improvement encouraged in everyday work
Team-led continuous improvement
Cross-team problem solving and continuous improvement
Shared learning from experience and mistakes

The idea that the day-to-day experiences of employees can be a valuable resource for improving the quality of products and services and enhancing problem solving has been around for a long time. Continuous improvement emerged strongly in post-war Japan where it is known as ‘kaizen’ and was credited with playing an important role in the country’s economic success. It is based on the view that all employees should ‘own’ their work and that of their team and that they should continually seek ways of improving performance through many small changes.  At a strategic level kaizen is also used, for example, to improve workflow between teams.

Japanese management methods were widely publicised in the West during the 1980s, and methods such as Six Sigma and Total Quality Management are now widely adopted as ways of measuring and systematising processes, and reducing variation, defects and cycle times. One of the most widely used tools for continuous improvement is the Deming Cycle, based on four simple steps which can be used at individual, team or cross-team levels:

  • Plan: Identify an opportunity and plan for change.
  • Do: Implement the change on a small scale.
  • Study: Use data to analyse 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.

It seems like a very simple approach but there are pitfalls! In practice managers often hurtle towards the Act stage in the belief that they already know the nature of the problem and its solution – thereby neglecting the knowledge and insights of others and failing to gain their commitment.

While enthusiasts tend to adopt an extensive vocabulary and portfolio of tools based on Japanese concepts, we will limit our discussion to some specific practices that have been readily adopted by European companies.

How Continuous Improvement works

Amongst the most important insights from the Japanese experience is that each worker is the greatest expert in her or his own job.  Secondly that people at all levels can come to work to do two things: firstly to perform their functional tasks in the best possible way, and secondly to improve the business. But for many organisations, of course, achieving this level of engagement is not as straightforward as it sounds.

Managers often tell us that “my people just want to do their jobs and go home at the end of the day – they don’t want to get involved in changing things”. Our usual response is “Well, what have you done to make them like that?”

People are naturally curious, questioning and creative. They get frustrated by the unnecessary obstacles that get in the way of them doing a good job.

Yet if throughout her working life Emma has never been asked her opinion, or worse, has been told to get on with the job and not ask stupid questions, she will either feel that her ideas are worthless or that it’s just not worth the effort. It will take more than a suggestion scheme to persuade her otherwise.

This can apply as much to skilled software developers or scientists as to production line or clerical workers. Remember too that the vast majority of workers in Europe, like Emma, are not employed in jobs that routinely enable them to learn and develop through constructive challenges and opportunities to exercise initiative.

Changing attitudes and behaviours is unlikely to succeed overnight. Most people will need to develop the confidence and skills needed to challenge dysfunctional practices and argue the case for new ways of working. The starting point is to build opportunities for reflection and discussion into everyday working life.


Action Learning drives Continuous Improvement

Following an in-house workshop led by Workplace Innovation Europe, Charles River in Edinburgh wanted its middle managers to play a stronger role in unleashing ideas for improvement across the workforce and encouraging more inclusive approaches to decision-making.

But how to achieve this, especially in teams where there was no tradition of employee involvement?

Recognising that there was no single path to achieving this, yet wanting to ensure consistency of outcome, senior managers created action learning sets for groups of 5 or 6 line managers. Action learning is a process that helps individuals to solve real problems with support from a closed group of peers, to reflect on results, and to drive further progress.

In Charles River, each line manager prepared an action plan for stimulating ‘employee voice’ in her or his own team. Monthly meetings enabled each person to record progress and bring difficult problems to the set.

A desire to demonstrate progress between meetings ensured that each manager kept up the momentum of change!

Read more about action learning.

It is not uncommon for teams, even within the same department, to work in very different ways. Sometimes this represents a healthy diversity but we often find examples where well-functioning teams sit alongside teams with quite dysfunctional practices that lead to persistent difficulties. Team tours can be highly effective as a means of sharing and distributing good practice throughout an organisation. Team members prepare for their visits to other teams as ‘critical friends’, agreeing questions and issues for exploration in advance. During the visits they interview their team counterparts and take part in group discussions, noting good practices as well as potential areas for improvement. At the end of the visit they present their findings to host team members, helping them to recognise and celebrate their own good practices as well as sharing ideas for improvement.

Simple techniques can also be very effective. Whiteboard tours, in which teams regularly visit each other’s whiteboards to learn from their ideas and challenges can be a low-cost and engaging way of breaking down barriers and stimulating fresh thinking.

Liberty Steel was one of ten companies taking part in the Scottish Enterprise Workplace Innovation Engagement Programme led by Workplace Innovation Europe.

As a market-leading steel plate mill, Liberty Steel Dalzell has an established history of engineering outstanding heavy steel plate. Through their action plan, Willie and Peter recognised the need for openness, transparency, team working, visible and supportive leadership, and, above all, engaging the workforce. They designed an ambitious framework of regular meetings and forums involving all levels of the workforce.

Problems with the cutting machine brought the benefits of workplace innovation into focus. Everyone was looking to senior management to find a solution but none was forthcoming until a problem-solving forum was set up, bringing together frontline employees and younger engineers. Re-examining the evidence using problem solving tools and whiteboards, they identified the issue and corrected the machinery, leading to the most efficient 24 hours from the machine and the highest shift production level ever.


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Forum topic: Have you shared an idea for improving a product, service or process? What was your experience of doing so? Or have you tried to engage others in continuous improvement?

Click here to share your ideas and experiences.


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