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Continuous Improvement: The Importance of Change



By: Scott Jessup

Some companies that consider themselves forward-thinking often pay lip-service to the concept of continuous improvement, but how many of these companies are really committed to implementing it? For some traditional management teams entrenched in decades-old business models, the idea of empowering ALL employees to provide input into how the company is run is downright scary.

Continuous improvement stems from the Japanese word kaizen (Kai meaning “Change” Zen meaning “Good”, a business philosophy of continually improving work practices, personal efficiency, and business processes. It first drew attention and gained popularity with the publication of Masaaki Imai’s book Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success in 1986 and was adopted by western corporations as a new business model.

Kaizen involves every employee at every level making changes—large and small -- focusing on identifying problems at their source, solving them, and changing standards to ensure the problem stays solved. Utilizing tools that are traditionally associated with continuous improvement is popular because they get results.

These continual small improvements add up to major benefits. They result in a safer work environment, improved quality, faster delivery, lower costs, and greater customer satisfaction. Employees working in a company that actually practice what they preach and implement a solid continuous improvement environment generally find work easier and more enjoyable—resulting in higher worker morale and job satisfaction, with lower turn-over.

Utilizing tools that fall within the realm of Continuous improvement have been shown to produce significant results throughout manufacturing plants, including:

  • Reducing waste in areas such as inventory, waiting times, transportation, worker motion, employee skills, over production, excess quality and in processes
  • Improving space utilization, product quality, use of capital, communications, production capacity and employee retention
  • Immediate results by focusing on creative investments that continually solve large numbers of small problems instead of focusing on large capital intensive improvements

Of course, large capital projects and major changes may still be needed (and many of the tools that we have related to continuous improvement can also improve those), but the real power of continuous improvement lies in the on-going process of continually re-evaluating and potentially making small changes that make business and operational processes more efficient while reducing waste. Change is good, and with a robust system in place we are not changing just for the sake of change.

The real winner is the customer

Organizations that implement a continuous improvement culture and mindset acknowledge that the customer is the ultimate judge of how well a service is provided and the quality of the service itself. While the phrase “the customer comes first” may seem trite, it is the key to success and the cornerstone of continuous improvement. 

Whenever there is a question about how to make a service better, or when a new service is developed, in a culture of continuous improvement the first question asked is “What does the customer want?”  Manufacturers with an always looking to improve business model will look at issues from a variety of angles and develop a clear understanding of what the customer experience should look like and what the organization must do to satisfy the customers’ needs as completely as possible. 

Once the manufacturer knows what the customer wants and what the service and product should look like, they focus on providing it with a level of quality that matches the customers’ expectations.  As processes are improved or new ones created, they are designed to consistently provide the highest level of quality possible. 

Kaizen and continuous improvement dictates that all processes must not only produce high quality products, they must also be streamlined, efficient producing the right goods in the right amounts and above all else safe. Streamlining processes eliminates unnecessary activities and reduces the time and effort needed to provide the end product. The efficiency is seen in the organization’s ability to produce finished goods more quickly, with fewer wasted resources. It also means that they can very quickly adapt to the customers ever changing needs.

Because the processes are producing higher quality products with fewer mistakes and failures, there is less need to spend time and resources on fixing problems (rework). Less rework also means that customers will not need to have multiple contacts with the manufacturer to get what they need, and their overall satisfaction with the service and products they receive will be higher. 

When the customer wins, everybody wins

But wait, it gets even better. Having very safe, faster, less wasteful processes and more efficient run times translates into an ability to serve more customers while reducing the time they have to wait for services and delivery.  Because there is less waste and rework, the cost to provide finished goods is lower and the savings can potentially be passed on to the customer. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Still, there will be those who balk at implementing any of the tools of continuous improvement, concerned that the power of change will “go to the heads” of employees. To address those concerns and remove any remaining stumbling blocks, it might help to rephrase the question:

“What are the benefits of NOT creating a continuous improvement culture within your business?”

What kind of manager would deliberately decide not to improve safety, quality, delivery and lead times? What rational manager or C-suite executive would consider it a good idea to not to have an organization that values learning; not improve processes and the bottom-line; not fully utilize the intelligence, experience, and enthusiasm of their workers?

Framed that way, continuous improvement and the beneficial changes it can bring now become a question of “when” not “if.”