The what, why and how of a continuous improvement process

Dealing with crises and leveraging opportunities such as digitalization require a continuous improvement (CI) process that is embedded throughout the organization. This blog looks at the CI process, its benefits and the key steps that get implemented in a continuous cycle.

The past two years of global economic disruption have increased competitive risk and redefined the drivers of long-term business success. Harnessing the power of an integrated and continuous improvement process is key for supply chain managers and operational directors who wish to remain relevant.

Digital transformation has added an exciting yet challenging component to the continuous improvement process: integration. When continuous improvement methodologies such as the Lean, Six Sigma and Kaizen (5S) philosophies are applied as standalone solutions, they struggle to deliver superior results in digitalized production and operating environments. This is due to their traditionally siloed approaches which are at odds with the holistic requirements of digital transformation.


The integrative continuous improvement process

Most organizations understand that they operate in a digital age that requires them to transition their traditional production systems to modern ones. However, digital transformation requires a notable shift in organizational mindset and culture to achieve success.

Traditional production systems compartmentalize an organization’s functions. In this context, continuous improvement methodologies are applied to each function as opposed to the company as a whole. As a result, there is very little – if any – interdepartmental collaboration, let alone transparency along the supply chain.

A successfully digitalized organization operates as one. In order to optimize the process of continuous improvement, departmental silos are dismantled, and knowledge and skills are shared between functions. People, business processes, systems and practices are united across the business’ entire value chain.

An integrative approach to the continuous improvement process combines and integrates multiple CI processes simultaneously for sustainable success and quality assurance. Thus, it is specifically geared to support a company’s digital transformation as well as its future growth.


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The benefits of an integrative continuous improvement process

An integrative continuous improvement process encourages people to deliver small changes to their workplace. The integrated nature of these incremental improvements means that positive change is gradually built into the DNA of the business.

Essentially, an integrative continuous improvement process empowers a digitally transforming or transformed business with the resilience to withstand crises and capitalize on opportunities.

The benefits of continuous improvement for organizations include:

  • Transformational and enduring improvements
  • United and collaborative workforces
  • Reduced operational costs and waste
  • Increased end-to-end value chain efficiencies
  • Improved productivity and revenue growth
  • Maximized value to customers


How does integrative improvement work?

An integrative continuous improvement process is a business improvement system that delivers sustainable results through people-driven best practice and work process improvements.

In other words, involving all employees in an ongoing effort to streamline the organization’s processes and systems is vital. This includes the organization’s leaders who need to shift their focus from running to improving the business – and guide their team members through appropriate and committed action.

To activate an integrative CI process, organizations must follow a six-step approach that is actioned in a continuous cycle. An integrative CI process is not a one-off exercise; it requires ongoing assessment, planning, training, implementation, problem-solving, management and sharing. Mapping out the cycle enables organizations to identify the root cause of any inefficiencies, avoid bottlenecks in the process and achieve breakthrough improvements.


What are the six steps in the continuous improvement process?


  1. Assess all areas and opportunities for improvement

The assessment stage investigates an organization’s existing levels of maturity in terms of its digital capability, CI culture and value chain alignment. Before introducing an integrated CI process, an organization needs to know where its strengths and weaknesses lie so that it can design an appropriate strategy.

A performance transformation plan based on a maturity assessment will address the gaps between an organization’s baseline state and its vision for the future. Time, energy and attention is then focused on implementing relevant integrated improvement initiatives that enable people and functions to meet their organizational goals.


  1. Plan workflows to meet improvement targets and timelines

No two organizations are alike which means that no two maturity assessments will deliver the same metrics. As such, each organization will require a unique plan based on their individual assessment results. The primary elements of a well-orchestrated plan include:

    • Ordering activities into a sensible sequence that allows for seamless implementation
    • Aligning milestones with business objectives and maturity targets
    • Sourcing relevant resources and improvement tools to fill gaps in requirements
    • Focusing on employees’ digital skills development through training assignments
    • Promoting integration through interdepartmental and cross-functional collaboration on deliverables
    • Assigning actions to specific challenges for teams to address by a set date
    • Synchronizing successful improvement initiatives at a global level
    • Conducting progress reviews at defined intervals
    • Adjusting the plan with agility as and when required


  1. Train leadership and extend CI capabilities

To mitigate the potentially disruptive impact of change, an organization’s leaders need to drive an inclusive and well-communicated integrative CI plan. A business’ seamless evolution from a siloed, traditional and functional process management approach to an integrated, collaborative and digitally enabled process depends on its people.

To that end, all employees will benefit from training that develops their digital skills. What is more, leaders need to demonstrate behavioral change that encourages all employees to work with each other. Thus, it is important for leaders to invest in their project management prowess and develop their soft skills in areas such as emotional intelligence and people networks.

Leadership tools like leader standard work (LSW) support the integrative continuous improvement process by collecting data to standardize leadership’s actions across the organization. The LSW tool helps achieve unity, accountability and engagement by sustaining integrative improvement in people performance and work practices company-wide.


  1. Implement integrated best practices across the company

Multifunctional teams are crucial to establishing and maintaining an integrative continuous improvement process at all levels of an organization. When improvements are approached holistically and address all functions – such as quality control, maintenance, HR, supply and demand planning – simultaneously, then processes, products and practices are consistently optimized for the customer.

World-class best practices are achieved when integrative CI is implemented throughout the business. By linking best practice and quality improvement to employee performance, CI processes are entrenched into the company’s fiber. Empowered, accountable and engaged employees fuel an integrative improvement organizational culture that focuses on the customer.


  1. Manage progress at a global level

Digital transformation puts data at the center of an organization. Data and analytics are key to the integrative CI process as they help leaders and their teams track their improvement initiatives, share updates quickly and make informed decisions based on real-time intelligence.

In fact, digital transformation and an integrative continuous improvement process work in concert with each other and support mutual success. The principles of integrative CI embody sharing knowledge, working together and developing skills. The power of a digitally-enabled, data-driven organization is that it facilitates integration and enables holistic continuous improvement.

Data analysis and access are crucial to managing continuous improvement planning and progress at a global level. Thanks to transparent and real-time reports, improvement initiatives are easily shared and quickly implemented. This has an enormous and positive impact on the organization’s global digital transformation process too.


  1. Share improvement practices and standards through digitally enabled and accessible platforms

A continuous improvement process depends on continuous and shared learning across functions and departments. Throughout the integrative CI cycle, leaders and their teams need to work together to share knowledge, skills and expertise outside of their specified roles.

A shared learning program ensures that an organization’s employees gain greater insight into a vast range of business areas. It does so by steering a strategic and well-orchestrated training and development road map. The upshot is a united repository of abilities that can tackle both large- and small-scale problems and opportunities with speed, relevance and confidence.


Integrative CI = sustainable success

Organizations that follow these integrative continuous improvement process steps are agile and thus far more sustainable. Their agility enables them to optimize their digital transformation journeys at local and global levels. These improvement techniques enable them to respond to ever-changing consumer demands and increasingly pressured global supply chains without missing a beat.

The overarching benefit of an integrative CI culture built into a company’s DNA is that it supports digitalization and automation, thus optimizing all functions to work as one and deliver superior service. This focus on incremental changes and performance ensures that only world-class best practices are retained which sustains the business well into the future. At the end of the day, nothing is better for business than customer satisfaction.

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