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6 stages of continuous improvement and why it is important

December 7, 2022 - 18 min read
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    Human transformation hinges on the idea that we can better ourselves and our organizations.

    So when it comes to continuous improvement, it’s an investment in reaching our full potential. This journey isn’t a one-size-fits-all when it comes to implementing improvement strategies or improvement techniques. It’s a deliberate process that requires observation, analysis, planning, and action. 

    But continuous improvement also is built on the idea that coaching can help people — and organizations — along the way. Like coaching, continuous improvement is an ongoing effort. It’s built on a foundation of teamwork, a strong company culture, and feedback. But it also requires support and continuous improvement tools to help keep skills and capabilities sharp. 

    At BetterUp, we believe everyone has the potential to grow and transform. We know businesses are made up of people. So when you invest in your people, you invest in the success of your organization.

    Sometimes, continuous improvement is the smallest change that adds up over time. Other times, continuous improvement goes hand-in-hand with adapting to change and building resilience to stay competitive in today’s market. Regardless, the process generates results without the pain that comes with making big changes at once.

    If it seems like there's room for improvement at work, or if you want to become an industry leader who stays ahead of the curve, use continuous improvement as a framework for making positive changes.

    What is continuous improvement?

    Continuous improvement is the process of making small incremental changes that add up to significant results based on deliberate observation of current processes.

    Also known as Kaizen, the continuous improvement method originated in Japan. Today, it’s been adopted by businesses across the globe as a way to achieve operational excellence.

    The main idea behind continuous improvement is that no process is perfect and there is always room for improvement. The goal is to squeeze out waste, optimize resources, and empower employees to make changes that improve the company's bottom line.

    Process improvement consultant Brian Ragone says it is "system thinking where we build feedback loops so we get information from current processes and reflect on how to improve them."

    Ragone says the focus of continuous improvement is three-fold:

    • Improving tools and materials
    • Improving people and relationships
    • Improving the work environment

    That often means removing bloated tools. Other times, it's improving documentation about how you work, so anyone can come in and get started immediately. It’s also upskilling your people. Finally, it's removing barriers from communication or just friction in work relationships.

    Finally, it’s improving the physical, and psychological safety of your people at work.

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    The 4 stages of continuous improvement

    Continuous improvement is sometimes called the PDCA cycle, which stands for Plan-Do-Check-Act. And those are the four stages of continuous improvement.

    Plan: Brainstorming and planning

    Identify an opportunity for improvement and put together an action plan for management. For example, you notice that your conversion rates are below average for your industry. So you determine that you'll send a nurture email sequence in addition to calling your leads.

    Do: Testing solutions

    Once you've identified an opportunity and determined how best to address it through change, implement that change on a small scale. We do this to objectively measure its effectiveness. For the email sequence example above, that may mean only emailing a small percentage of leads (20% for example).

    Check: Verifying the effectiveness

    Did the change work? We need to know before we can apply it organization-wide. If our test 20% of leads convert better than the other 80% who don't receive nurture emails, for example, we can conclude that the change was effective.

    Act: Implementing the solution

    Once you confirm that your solution is effective, it's time to deploy it organization-wide to reap the benefits.

    Continuous improvement methods

    There are several methods for continuous improvement. Here are five of them: 

    • The Lean Method
    • The Kanban Method
    • Six Sigma
    • Total Quality Management
    • Agile Methodology. 

    Let’s look at each one.

    The Lean method

    The Lean methodology is a continuous improvement framework that was originally developed for manufacturing. It has since been adopted by businesses in other industries. The goal of Lean is to eliminate waste and improve efficiency.  And it does that by streamlining processes and eliminating non-value-added activities.

    The Kanban method

    The Kanban method is a framework that helps you visualize your work and optimize your workflow. The key principle of Kanban is to break down your work into smaller tasks and then track the progress of each task through every stage of your workflow. This helps you identify bottlenecks and areas of inefficiency so you can make improvements.

    Six Sigma

    Six Sigma is a statistical framework that helps you identify and eliminate defects in your process. The goal of Six Sigma is to achieve near-perfection by reducing defects to a Six Sigma level. That's a defect rate of 3.4 errors per million opportunities.

    Total Quality Management

    Total Quality Management (TQM) is a framework that ensures that your products meet or exceed customer expectations. TQM is built on the foundation of continuous improvement. It emphasizes the need to systematically identify and address quality issues.

    Agile Methodology

    The Agile methodology is a framework for managing software development projects. Agile emphasizes iterative development, rapid prototyping, and constant feedback from stakeholders. The goal is to help teams create and launch high-quality software products in a fast and efficient manner.


    Why is continuous improvement important?

    Increased efficiency and productivity

    Because you’re constantly identifying areas where your processes can be improved, you can create a more streamlined workflow that cuts down on wasted time and resources. As a result, your team will be more productive.

    Improved employee engagement and relationships

    As Ragone stated, continuous improvement focuses on people and relationships just as much as it focuses on tools. The feedback loops in continuous improvement mean that employees watch out for opportunities for improvement in communication. 

    When employees feel like they are a part of a continuous improvement process, they are more engaged and invested in the success of the company. And you’ll have better relationships between employees and managers and a more positive work environment overall.

    Reduced waste

    By eliminating defects and streamlining processes, you can improve the quality of your product or service. This not only leads to happier customers but can also save you money in the long run by reducing the need for rework and replacements.

    Reduced costs

    In addition to reducing waste, continuous improvement can also help you save money in other ways. For example, by streamlining your process, you may be able to reduce the amount of inventory you need on hand. And by identifying errors early, you can avoid the cost of fixing them later on.

    Improved customer satisfaction

    When you eliminate waste and defects, you end up with a product or service that is more likely to meet customer expectations. As a result, your organization will experience increased customer satisfaction

    Reduced cycle time

    One of the benefits of making small improvements is that you can do it quickly. This means you can get your product or service to the market faster and start seeing results sooner.

    Increased innovation and staying ahead of the competition

    Continuous improvement helps you stay ahead of the competition by encouraging you to constantly explore new ways to improve your process. And by making small changes, you can test out new ideas quickly and cheaply to see if they’re worth pursuing.

    When you have a system in place for making small changes on an ongoing basis, you'll never stop improving.

    Allows agility and adaptation to change 

    In today's business environment, adapting quickly to change is critical to success. Building resilience as an organization is no longer a nice to have. It’s a must for every business. Continuous improvement helps you build a system that makes it easier to test out new ideas and quickly implement changes.


    The 6 steps in continuous improvement

    There are many ways to implement continuous improvement in your organization, but the most common method involves the following six steps:

    1. Assess your current state

    The first step in any process improvement initiative is to figure out where you are today. This can be done by mapping your current processes.

    “Process maps help you understand your current workflows and allow you to spot opportunities for improvement (if any)."

     Brian Ragone, Founder and Process Management Consultant at Puzzle

    Ragone says this is the most important step in all forms of process improvement.

    Walk through your current business processes with the people involved. Document every step (even those you deem irrelevant). Write down the order your people complete those steps in through the end of the process. 

    Next, create a flow chart using a process mapping tool to show your ordered process’ steps so you can see every detail with a birds-eye view

    Then identify the role responsible for each step in your process and the tools used. Project management tools, like Asana, can help with this process. Remember, continuous improvement is about your tools and materials, people and relationships, and environment.

    You should begin to spot gaps and opportunities for improvement now.

    2. Identify the root cause of problems

    Once you know where your process breaks down, it’s time to find out why. To identify the root cause of a problem, ask these five questions:

    • What happened?
    • When did it happen?
    • Who was involved?
    • What were they doing?
    • What were the conditions under which it happened?

    Using these prompts, we may discover that:

    • Leads fill our demo request form but never showed up
    • A week after they filled out the form
    • The lead, our CRM, and our sales team were involved
    • The lead filled out the form, our CRM notified us of a new lead, and our sales team qualified the lead and sent an invite to them for the call
    • Leads wait two days to receive an invite

    From this analysis, we can spot two areas as potential root causes: the demo call invites wait time, and the tone of the invitation.

    3. Develop a solution

    Now that you know where your process is breaking down and why, you can create a plan to address the problem.

    This plan should involve the people who are responsible for the steps in your process. Brainstorm potential solutions and then choose the one that promises to be most effective.

    4. Implement the solution

    Once you have a solution, it’s time to create a plan for implementing it.

    This plan should include a timeline for execution, a list of responsibilities, and any resources you’ll need. Then, put the plan into action.

    5. Evaluate the results

    After you’ve implemented your solution, it’s time to see if it worked.

    Evaluate the results of your solution against your original goals for improvement. If it didn’t work as planned, go back to step three and brainstorm another solution.

    6. Standardize the process

    If your solution was successful, congratulations! The last step is to make sure the process is followed correctly from now on.

    To do this, create standard operating procedures (SOPs) that describe the steps in your process. These SOPs should be clear and easy to follow so that anyone can do them.

    You should also create checklists or flowcharts that can be used as a reference when following the process.

    But remember that solutions are never final with the continuous improvement model. Establish feedback loops that let you continually access your processes for improvement.

    7 ways to improve continuous improvement

    There is always room for improvement in any process, even a process that’s designed to be improved. Here are a few ways you can make your continuous improvement efforts even more effective:

    1. Create feedback loops

    The best way to encourage continuous improvement is to create a culture that supports it. Encourage employee involvement by asking for and receiving feedback.

    And when employees make suggestions, take them seriously and give them the resources they need to make those improvements. It can also help in your employee engagement efforts. 

    2. Focus on the customer

    The goal of continuous improvement is to create a better product or service for your customers. So, it’s important to keep them in mind when you’re making changes.

    3. Set SMART goals

    SMART goals help you benchmark your progress and see if you’re making the improvements you want.

    4. Be flexible

    Don’t be afraid to change your plans if you find a better way to do something. The whole point of continuous improvement is flexibility in how we approach work and changes.

    5. Be willing to be wrong

    If you’re getting feedback from your employees, not all of it will be the feedback you like. Remember to approach all feedback with an open mind.

    As Glenn Rogers, CEO of Float tells his team, “Seek continuous improvement by welcoming feedback rather than defending against it. Your self-improvement journey requires education, seeking advice from others, and a willingness to be wrong.”

    6. Communicate your plans

    Make sure everyone in your organization knows what your plans are and how they can help. Good communication will help everyone stay on the same page and work together to improve your processes.

    7. Celebrate your successes

    When you make a successful improvement, take the time to celebrate it. This will help motivate your team members and show them that their efforts are appreciated.

    Set on your continuous improvement journey

    Continuous improvement is a powerful tool for any organization. By using it, you can make small, incremental improvements that add up to big results over time.

    The key to success with continuous improvement is to start small. Don’t try to do too much at once. Instead, make one or two incremental changes focusing on one area at a time.

    Remember, the goal is to make your process better, not perfect. There will always be room for improvement, so don’t strive for perfection.

    And if you’re not sure where to start, try BetterUp. Creating improvement opportunities starts with gathering the right support systems to help you get there. A coach can help provide personalized support to your workforce to help create a value stream that performs.

    See how BetterUp works - Watch Demo

    Published December 7, 2022

    Madeline Miles

    Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.

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