How to develop a continuous improvement plan in the digital age

A continuous improvement plan helps manufacturers navigate global events, demand variability, increased competition and digital transformation. Here’s how to design an integrated continuous improvement plan that meets your organization’s specific needs and business processes.

The past 18+ months have demonstrated that agile and digitally geared organizations are better placed to survive our current era of volatility and thrive well into the future. As a result, many manufacturing companies have fast-tracked their digital transformation journeys, shifting from traditional corporate production systems to digital operating systems (DOS) in record time. Ultimately, an organization aims to improve its overall organizational efficiency through digital transformation and thus, the process requires an integrated continuous improvement plan to ensure success.

A well-designed continuous improvement plan has helped many manufacturers achieve success in the face of market uncertainty, changing consumer demands, increased competition and unprecedented global events such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Simply put, an organization’s continuous improvement plan is founded on the company’s baseline capabilities; first it identifies organizational strengths and weaknesses, then it designs an appropriate strategy to guide implementation and, finally, it executes the relevant improvement initiatives in a logical sequence.

The digital age has upped the ante by driving the evolution of continuous process improvement. Still committed to the pursuit of greater efficiency, a continuous improvement plan that takes an integrative approach merges lean and smart to achieve consistently positive results. Underpinned by a DOS, integrative improvement focuses on breaking down organizational silos to streamline a company’s processes and practices through enhanced insights, collaboration and transparency. There are many lean methodologies and tools available, from kaizen and value stream mapping to the four-step PDCA (plan-do-check-act) and DMAIC (define-measure-analyze-improve-control).

The challenge manufacturers face is how to develop a continuous improvement plan that is integrated, digitally fluent and strategically designed to meet their unique needs.


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How to develop an integrated continuous improvement plan in the digital age 

A successful and sustainable digital transformation requires a well-orchestrated plan to ensure that management and their teams effect positive change with confidence and consistency. No matter the urgency, manufacturers cannot skimp on planning before implementing any changes within their organizations. Nor can they copy and paste a continuous improvement strategy used with success elsewhere. No two organizations are alike, thus each plan needs to be drafted to meet a unique array of business objectives, weaknesses and strengths.

That said, most successful examples of continuous improvement plans seem unified by several common elements. They include, in no specific order, the following:

  • Identifying bottlenecks and gaps in resources, and filling those requirements
  • Including teams in the transition process by assigning them tasks that are clearly outlined with specific purposes and defined deadlines
  • Encouraging collaboration among and between teams, stakeholders, functions and departments to tackle key tasks geared toward integrative improvement
  • Supporting management and their teams with training assignments structured to help them improve their digital capabilities and confidence
  • Ensuring that all improvement initiatives are strategically aligned with business objectives

A strong, aligned and committed leadership is key to sequencing the above activities logically and overseeing that all improvement efforts are implemented sensibly for company-wide impact. Another key responsibility of the leadership role is tracking all the improvement initiatives and reviewing how well they are progressing at set, regular intervals.


People drive a well-orchestrated continuous improvement plan

In the rush toward technological advancement, it is easy for organizations to overlook their human workforces and focus instead on their new software and digital tools. The reality is that new technology only works well if it is used correctly – and that requires inclusive leadership, employee buy-in and skills training.

Continuous improvement essentially supports the need for ongoing organizational changes in the best interests of the business. While most employees will understand the importance of innovation and challenging their comfort zones, actual change is not always easy to embrace. Successfully implementing any change is a people-first endeavor and has to include the C-suite, management and their teams. In fact, for an integrated continuous improvement program to really make its mark, it has to be embedded in the organization’s cultural DNA at a company-wide level. That said, the ‘‘tone’’ needs to be set and sustained by those at the top.

Research by Dr John Kotter, an authority on business leadership, shows that 70% of organizational efforts geared at enacting major change fail. Kotter states quite simply that the reason for this poor turnout is the lack of a well-led, holistic, i.e., integrated, approach.

Fortunately, he provides an eight-step process to help manufacturers lead their companies through change successfully and embed a culture of positive change action through a continuous improvement plan:

1. Impress the urgency of change upon others to achieve buy-in.
2. Build a strong leadership group that can work as one.
3. Create a change narrative and communicate it clearly.
4. Encourage all employees to pursue positive change.
5. Identify and remove any obstacles preventing positive change.
6. Highlight short-term wins and small-scale change successes.
7. Maintain momentum and employee buy-in.
8. Articulate improvements and embed positive change in the company’s culture.

Lean methodologies to support the continuous improvement process

An integrated approach to continuous improvement works by breaking down departmental silos and integrating an organization’s functions, employees, processes and practices. Integration gives continuous improvement an holistic upgrade that is people-led and digitally enabled. Crucially, integration applies to the various lean methodologies used in continuous improvement plans, merging their benefits for long-term cohesion and sustainability. These lean methodologies include kaizen, 5S, six sigma, Kanban and others.


5S within a continuous improvement model

The five principles of 5S are expressed in Japanese as Seiri, Seiso, Seiton, Seiketsu and Shitsuke. In English, they can be translated as follows:

1. Seiri = Sort Remove unnecessary items in the workplace
2. Seiso = Shine Keep the workplace clean
3. Seiton = Set in order Organize items in the workplace and keep them in place
4. Seiketsu = Standardize Define workplace standards to guide operations and production
5. Shitsuke = Sustain Maintain momentum through employee empowerment and self-discipline

Like all lean methodologies, 5S emphasizes efficiency (less waste) to maximize profit. To achieve this, it focuses on workplace cleanliness, orderliness and discipline. A manufacturing environment that is 5S enabled – and takes an integrated approach to continuous improvement – presents the perfect environment for kaizen to thrive in.


Continuous improvement and kaizen

Interestingly, the kaizen philosophy echoes Dr Kotter by emphasizing the importance of a cultural core that embraces continuous improvement through strong leadership and employee buy-in. Teamwork, guidance, empowerment and engagement are all crucial to building a standardized and efficient workplace that can adapt to positive change and promote it too.

Kaizen emphasizes the importance of small-scale, incremental improvements within an organization. In fact, it appreciates the value in steady, iterative adaptation that does not “rock the boat” all at once but rather reinforces an organization’s improvement plan by showcasing how, for example, a minor tweak in a manufacturing process can improve production output significantly.

A continuous improvement work plan that integrates lean methodologies and unifies people in its pursuit of positive change will guide an organization on its digital transformation journey from a traditional corporate production system to a DOS – as well as sustain the benefits of its transition – with far greater success.


Integration underpins continuous improvement in the digital age

Manufacturers face challenging times that require all hands on deck, digital fluency and agility. Continuous improvement is a tried-and-tested approach to navigating external uncertainties by embracing internal innovation and positive change – big or small. However, digital transformation presents new challenges that are compounded by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. A continuous improvement plan that takes an integrated approach includes all processes, people and practices in achieving and sustaining a digital transition that not only helps an organization successfully survive the present – but enables it to succeed well into the future.

Download the white paper Digital operating system: The next generation of production systems for more on the transition from corporate production system to DOS.

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