Choosing the right continuous improvement management system

Adapting to shifting trends and global uncertainty requires a continuous improvement management system that helps bolster processing capacity. Here’s a step-by-step approach to selecting the right system.

Continued supply chain disruptions, travel restrictions and social distancing measures marked yet another tumultuous year for industrial companies worldwide. However, despite such constraints, many companies managed to repurpose their production capabilities and adapt to shifting trends in global supply chains. Many of them would not have been able to do so without a mature continuous improvement management system.


A continuous improvement management system to improve processing capacity

The disruptions to industrial production and logistics caused by COVID-19 are prompting many companies to reassess their supply chains and domestic industrial capacity. A particularly challenging issue lingering in company executives’ minds, most notably those in manufacturing organizations, is improving and bolstering processing capacity and optimizing production cycle times and flexibility in a radically changing landscape. Hence, one of the elements they need to consider as they plan and review next year’s budget is the cost and expected return from a reputable continuous improvement (CI) management system.

Originally developed from the management practices and techniques of the likes of Toyota and General Electric, CI processes refer to the ongoing cycles a company makes to a service or product. Over the years, these processes evolved to adapt and serve a variety of industries. They are often used to address customer needs by providing a framework to identify customer “satisfaction” needs and values, and thus focusing on what moves the needle for them.

Yet, despite the vast amount of knowledge gleaned from the early pioneering efforts of these industrial giants, many enterprises still fail to achieve the bottom line of increasing income, lowering expenses, and maximizing profit in the short term. Continuous improvement doesn’t help much if it’s not incremental and iterative – processes need to be in place to harness its full potential.

An approach emphasizing incremental improvements is specifically helpful for innovation and is well-suited to support rapid changes, a stark necessity driven home by the impact of the pandemic. Therefore, to shift gears fast and stay on top, it’s critical to select the right continuous improvement management system.


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Benefits versus investment

Executives are driven by short-term results that drive cost-cutting approaches to most improvement initiatives. These are real and necessary. Yet, before investing in such endeavors, common and understandable concerns are whether the proclaimed benefits are realizable and whether these benefits outweigh the investment. Compounding the matter is that the world of continuous improvement is jam-packed with heaps of new and existing concepts, making it difficult for executives to select the “right approach” toward choosing a continuous improvement management system.

Some executives who have already started with a particular improvement process are still not entirely convinced that they have chosen the one that will deliver the positive change they’re after. And sometimes, because of different opinions, organizations end up with more than one approach being taken simultaneously.

For example, in a prominent global paper and packaging group, half of the group’s companies implement a Total Quality Management system while the other half focus their efforts on Total Productive Maintenance. Although widely recognized as scientific approaches to learning and applying value-adding knowledge to business processes, these and other accepted CI best practices are now being challenged by the digital and technological age known as Industry 4.0.

While these parallel programs may well be “right” in their own way, the key point is to select the continuous improvement management system that aligns with modern business strategies while still driving the requisite process improvement. That’s why making the right choice today is essential.

Bear in mind that the idea of continuous improvement in the digital age doesn’t mean the core goal is different. After all, everyone still wants to get better all the time, but the route we take needs to match the new goalposts we’ll encounter along the way. The snag with the drive toward everything becoming more digital is the mistaken perception that existing processes must be upheaved en masse to achieve quick-win improvements.

However, just as changes to traditional processes need to be done systematically to uncover the root causes of performance lapses, so too should it be when implementing a CI strategy and organizational changes.


Steps that have stood the test of time

An integrated lean management system – selected and implemented correctly – will help manufacturing organizations cope with disruptive events, changing consumer demands, increased competition and digital transformation. Therefore, the challenge executives face is how to develop a continuous improvement model that is digitally fluent and strategically designed to meet their unique needs.

The following 10 time-tested steps will help you select a continuous improvement management system that’s right for your organization:

1. Identify your requirements. Picking the right solution involves more than just picking the right methodology. Ask yourself these questions:
  • Does the solution answer the needs and problems I want to solve?
  • Does the solution fit with the overall business strategy?
2. Define a meaningful set of key performance indicators (KPIs) and other value chain imperatives that need to be built into the continuous improvement management system. This will help you monitor processes and identify the ones that need improvement.
3. Evaluate your organization’s ability to implement and sustain a continuous improvement culture. Rather than copying and pasting culture, leadership must nurture and develop the correct enabling patterns of behavior and cultural attributes of excellence.
4. Plan your timeline. Identify the steps you’ll want to take to get where you want to go. Be patient and realistic – while there will be quick wins along the way, the continuous improvement journey primarily consists of incremental and continuous efforts to improve processes and reduce waste.
5. Assemble an executive team to choose and manage the improvement system. Cover both bases by getting sign-off from all stakeholders on goals, requirements, and capability building. Operations and the primary users of the system, such as the manufacturing and supply chain functions, should drive the decision.
6. Ask vendors tough questions. Make sure they show they have what they say they have in terms of best practice integration across multiple platforms and long-term, sustainable performance. A continuous improvement plan that takes an integrated approach includes all processes, people and practices in achieving and sustaining a digital transition.
7. Talk to references and verify case studies. Ask about technical and nontechnical factors:
  • What were the quick wins after the implementation of short-term projects?
  • How much training and additional services were required?
  • To what extent were teams helped to deal with change?
8. Make a decision. This is the most critical step. Select the CI provider that can best help you attain the goals you set at the start of the procurement process. The main objective of this phase is to minimize human emotion and political positioning to arrive at a decision that is in the best interest of the organization.
9. Get started. The earlier you get started, the sooner you’ll see results. Assess your current best practice maturity and formulate an appropriate change management strategy. Analyze what resources you will likely need, and then draw up a road map of your best practice implementation journey.
10. Review, optimize and improve. Here’s an overview of how to approach this phase:
  • Invest in the requisite training and resources you need to be successful
  • Build internal capability to ensure that your improvement solution is not an intervention but ‘‘the way we do work’’
  • Constantly re-evaluate potential, emerging or legacy bottlenecks in workflow
  • After 3-6 months, do a checkup and consider reengaging with your vendor’s services
  • Engage with your vendor’s best practice community to learn and share best practices – suggest ideas for new features or functionality enhancements at the same time
  • Celebrate the early wins

Finally, when launching or adjusting a continuous improvement system, aim to make an impact quickly for credibility and momentum. Pick your battles, and don’t try to tackle all objectives at once. Always use strategic objectives as the primary measure for deciding if something should be done and how it should be done.

Implementing continuous improvement processes and sticking to them requires a lot of commitment, good leadership, and the right corporate culture. And with the right continuous improvement management system and problem-solving culture, your business can build the capacity to respond to today’s rapidly changing market and technology landscapes with vigor and resilience.

Download the how-to guide Managing change across the organization for more on leading your organization through the change process.