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How to ensure Continuous Improvement: Step by Step

Updated: Mar 4, 2022

Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection — Mark Twain.

Throughout the last decade or so of my experience, there is one thing I have learnt the hard way and I couldn’t agree with anything else other than the above phrase. I feel it is a procrastination killer and motivates me to “do things” rather than wait for a suitable time (which never comes, anyways). We have heard about many continuous improvement processes in our professional journey, and Organisations have tried to follow some of them, including Lean production, Six Sigma, and Agile, which have swept through a range of industries.

In this blog, we will see one of such continuous improvement tools and how organisations can benefit from that process along with learning about the challenges faced during implementation.

The tool is a four-step quality assurance method called the PDCA Cycle.

The first stage in PDCA cycle is Plan.

Plan: Identify an opportunity and plan for change. What does it mean? We plan for a change either if we see real benefits (or an Opportunity A.K.A. Mauka) in it.

  1. We have faced problems that need to be addressed

  2. The drive for innovation, or

  3. Competition driving us towards planning a change

Before we move to the next phase, we should have answers for the questions below.

  • What is the core problem we need to solve- Define a clear problem statement and don’t try to solve too many problems in one go

  • What resources do we need to solve the problem, and do we have those resources? If not, what is the best solution for fixing the problem with the available resources?

  • Under what conditions will the plan be considered successful- (most important).

The next phase in the PDCA Cycle is Do.

Do: After drinking so many cups of coffee and finally agreeing on a plan, it is time to Do something.

Be aware that unpredicted problems may occur at this phase. Therefore, in a perfect situation, you may first try to incorporate your plan on a smaller scale and in a controlled environment: Don’t rush or act blindly to meet deadlines or achieve your goal. Act as per the plan and try not to deviate from it. Any work which is not in the plan is called “Gold Plating”, which will never do any good to you or the customer. Gold Plating is bad because if a feature was not included in the plan, only because either it was not required or not helpful and we would end up missing deliverables of actually required/helpful features.

Before we move to the next phase, we should be clear on the questions below.

  • The plan was made for a reason, so it is important for players to execute it as outlined. Was it done as intended?

  • Was training of all personnel involved in the project, the actual process of doing the work, and recording insights, or data, for future evaluation done properly?

The next phase in the PDCA Cycle is Check Phase.

Check: How to ensure that the action taken by you is moving you in the right direction or off the track. Checks should not be based on self-belief but on data to analyse the results of the change and determine whether it made a difference. Check/Audit it with the plan agreed before, based on KPI, KRA, etc.

This is probably the most important stage of the PDCA cycle. If you want to clarify your plan, avoid recurring mistakes, and apply continuous improvement successfully, you need to pay enough attention to the CHECK phase.

The focus should be on finding the root cause of the problems.

Before we move to the next phase, we should be clear on the questions below.

  • Audit your plan’s execution and see if your initial plan actually worked?

  • Were the team was able to identify problematic parts of the current process and in a position to eliminate them in the future?

The focus should be on finding the root cause of the problems

The next and last phase in the PDCA cycle is Act Phase.

Act: Finally, after loads of hard work (hopefully), you arrive at the last stage of the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle. If the change was successful (after verifying with the initial plan, KPI’s, feedback from all stakeholders), implement it on a wider scale and continuously assess your results. If the change did not work as expected, begin the cycle again.

Below questions should be asked in this phase.

  • What resources are needed to implement the solution company-wide; as implementing on a larger scale needs more resources and different ball games altogether.

  • What kind of training is needed for full implementation of the improvement?

  • How can the change be maintained and sustained- this is key for the success of the organization.

  • How can we measure and monitor the impact of the solution on large scale?

  • Remember, every time you repeat a standardised plan, go through all steps again and try to improve.

Now, we will see some of the hurdles that organisations face in implementing it or any improvement plan in general.

State of the learner: Each learner is an individual with their own unique background, they will all have their own set of challenges that must be considered. One size does not fit all.

Fixed and growth mindsets: There are two thought processes of the people.

  1. Learners with a fixed mindset believe Intelligence cannot be improved and will lack the motivation to do so. People in this category will not participate in training or will find them not useful.

  2. Learners with a growth mindset believe that intelligence is malleable and take a more positive and engaged approach to learn. They would be keen to learn and will go above and beyond before their assigned task.

We need to build a growth mindset as this is the key to success.

Stress: If learners are stressed, they are not able to learn as effectively. It can come from their daily work, co-worker relations, or professional ambitions. It can also come from outside of work such as from family life, health, or their financial situation. Mind it, Stress can also come from the lifelong learning initiative you are undertaking so plan it properly.

Learning ability: Some professions naturally connect with lifelong learning such as programming or writing, as these require continuous research/learning. However, some of the employees may be in roles that are more static and haven’t done much learning in a while. These people need some longer rope to help them.

There may also be employees who may not come from an academic background but have excellent people’s skills such as some client-facing professionals.

Regardless of their role, everybody in the organization needs to learn to scale up and grow. Remember if People grow, Organization Grows.

Time management

Lifelong learning is a continuous lifestyle that inevitably demands time. Even 4 hours a week dedicated to learning can seem like a lot to professionals who are busy both inside and outside of work. Although learning can be made pleasurable or gamified, there is still an amount of bandwidth that is needed to put in the effort required. Few tips that can help in Time Management are listed below.

  1. Keep track of the time spent on each task to reduce waste.

  2. Create a to-do list for each day and stick to it.

  3. Complete the most important task first

  4. Take short breaks in between each task.

  5. Focusing on a single task at a time.

  6. Away from social media, Mobile, OTT platforms and other distractions while at work.

Balancing work and learning

Making decisions about when learning can occur in your organization will affect outcomes. You will need to think about what the right proportion between work is and learning engagements, when it occurs, and who gets to decide what is being learned. This process will have to be owned by the employee themselves having an element of trust from leadership. According to research done for one of the Industrial units for an organization, it has led to a 20% productivity increase in less than two months.

It is very important for the organization to consider the above points to build a culture of Continuous Improvement otherwise it will do more harm than benefits.

In the end, I would like to conclude that everyone should own their continuous improvement and not leave it to their managers to decide in an organization. It gives the purpose of owning your work, finding motivation in work, and challenging and rewarding careers. One should aim to begin with at least making a 1-degree shift and not look for a 180-degree shift straight away.

“Most people overestimate what they can do in a day, and underestimate what they can do in a month. We overestimate what we can do in a year, and underestimate what we can accomplish in a decade.” — by Matthew Kelly

Core to a continuous improvement mindset is the belief that a steady stream of improvements, diligently executed, will have transformational results.

Remember it’s never too late to begin.

Written by Amit Mohan for Edzest Education Services. Follow him here: Amit Mohan’s LinkedIn profile

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