In Lean, continuous improvement is a lot like a religion. Even though it seems easy to do, leaders and teams who aren’t familiar with process improvement techniques have a hard time keeping it up.

To use this mindset, you need to know what continuous improvement is, what principles you need to follow, and what some of the best practices are.

The Model for Continuous Improvement

If you don’t put the term “continuous improvement” in a specific setting, it can sound very vague. In a few words, it is always trying to get better at everything you do. Kaizen is another name for continuous improvement in Lean management.

Kaizen started in Japan soon after the end of World War II. It became very popular in manufacturing, and it was one of the things that helped Toyota grow from a small carmaker to the world’s biggest carmaker.

In the context of the Lean methodology, continuous improvement aims to improve every process in your company by focusing on improving the activities that give your customers the most value while getting rid of as many waste activities as possible.

In Lean, there are three kinds of waste:

◉ The seven wastes (Muda)
◉ Mura: The waste of being not even
◉ Muri: The waste of being too busy

Muda is made up of seven major process wastes: transport, inventory, motion, waiting, overproduction, overprocessing, and defects.

It’s almost impossible to get rid of them all, but if you want continuous improvement to work, you need to focus on minimizing their negative effects on your work.

Mura is caused by a process that is not even or consistent. It is the cause of many of Muda’s seven wastes. Mura makes it hard for your tasks to move smoothly through your work process, which makes it hard to reach continuous flow.

Companies that use push systems have a lot of trouble with Muri. When you give your team too much work, you put too much stress on both the team and the process.

Muri is usually caused by Mura, and if you want continuous improvement to be a part of your culture, you need to focus on getting rid of these wastes.

How to Use Tools and Techniques for Continuous Improvement

The first step in putting continuous improvement into your management culture is to understand the theory behind it. To make sure you can keep getting better, you need to set up the right conditions in your company.

In Lean management, there are three main ways to make improvements all the time:

Plan-Do-Check-Act

Plan-Do-Check-Act is the most common way to make sure that things keep getting better.

It’s also called the Deming circle, after its creator, the American engineer William Edwards Deming. It’s a never-ending cycle that helps you get better based on what you’ve already done.

It was first made to keep an eye on quality, but over time it turned into a tool for achieving continuous improvement.

During the planning phase, you need to decide on the goals and processes needed to get the results you want (the target or goals).

Setting goals for output is a key part of achieving continuous improvement, because setting goals that are accurate and complete is a big part of the process of getting better.

It is best to start on a small scale so you can see how the approach works.

“Do” is the second step. It’s easy because all you have to do is carry out the plans you made in the planning step.

After you’ve reached your goals, you should look at what you’ve done and compare it to what you were hoping to do. Collect as much information as you can and think about how you could improve your process to get better results next time.

If the analysis shows that you did better on this project than on the last one, the standard is raised, and you need to do even better next time.

If you don’t improve or even do worse than before, the standard stays the same as it was before you started your last project.

Root Cause Analysis

Root Cause Analysis (RCA) is a Lean management technique that helps you get to Kaizen by showing you where the problems in your process come from.

It is a practice that keeps going back and looking at what caused a problem until you get to the root of the problem. It’s a root problem only if the final bad effect is stopped for good after the cause is taken care of.

To use RCA for continuous improvement, you need to analyze the problem in detail.

For example, let’s say you’re in charge of a team that makes software. When you put out the most recent version of your product, customers reported a lot of bugs to your support team.

You start looking for the root cause at the problem’s surface.

You look into how your QA team let this happen and find that they didn’t test the software as much as they should have.

After that, you look into what happened and find out that the development team gave them the features that were supposed to come out at the very last minute.

When you look into why that is, you find out that most of the features were finished right before they were sent to quality assurance.

When you look into why that is, you find that it took your development team longer than you had planned to build the features in the first place.

When you look into why, you find that your team wasn’t working well because each developer was working on several features at once. So, instead of sending QA one feature at a time, they sent a batch that was too big to process quickly.

When you think about why this happened, you realize that you haven’t put any limits on how much work can be done at once and haven’t made sure that your process is even.

When you get to this point, you decide that Mura is the cause of the bug problem (the waste of unevenness).

To achieve continuous improvement, you should figure out the root cause of each problem and try out different solutions.

Often, problems are much more complicated than you think, and the RCA would need to be done more than once before the bad effect could never happen again.

If you don’t know how to do a root cause analysis, you might want to look into the 5 Whys method for figuring out the causes.

Applying Lean Kanban

To keep making your process better, you need a clear picture of what needs to be changed.

If you can’t see what’s going on, you’ll be able to make small changes now and then, but you won’t be able to spot signs of a problem until it’s too late.

Toyota was looking for a way to do this, so they came up with Kanban as a way to make the production process run more smoothly.

Kanban was eventually used for knowledge work, and it has helped thousands of teams improve continuously. The method is based on six core practices that help you cut down on waste:

◉ See how your work flows
◉ Eliminate interruptions
◉ Control flow
◉ Process policies should be clear
◉ Make loops for feedback
◉ Improve collaboratively

The method uses whiteboards to map out every step of your process so you can see how it all works. The board is split into columns for the different stages by vertical lines.

There are three columns on a basic Kanban board: “Requested,” “In Progress,” and “Done.”

Each task that your team is working on is kept on a Kanban card, which was originally a Post-it note. For a task to be finished, it needs to go through all the steps of your workflow.

Kanban boards let you keep an eye on how even your process is and can be a powerful tool for reducing Mura.

Also, they show you how much work each member of your team has, which can help you avoid overburdening (Muri) by letting you assign tasks based on your team’s abilities.

Lastly, you can keep an eye on how quickly work is moving through your workflow and keep making your workflow more efficient.

Kanban limits the amount of work that can be done at the same time so that work doesn’t get interrupted. The goal is to stop people from doing more than one thing at a time, which is just a constant change of context between tasks that hurts productivity.

With Kanban, you can control how work moves through your process. To make sure your process runs smoothly, you need to know where work gets stuck and take steps to fix those points. This way, you can try out different parts of your workflow and keep getting better.

In Lean management, everyone works together to make improvements all the time. So, you need to make sure that everyone on your team knows what the goal is and why their part is important.

By making process rules clear, you’ll encourage your team members to take more responsibility and own their process.

For good things to happen, you and your team need to share information with each other all the time.

The Kanban board is a great way to start a feedback loop because it makes it clear at all times who is doing what.

Together with the common practice of having daily “stand-up” meetings with the team, you can keep making it easier for people to share information.

The Gemba walk and the A3 report are two more tools that are used in continuous improvement. The A3 report is a structured way to deal with problems, and the Gemba walk is a way to get you to go see where the real work is done. Both are very useful, and they can help you find parts of your workflow that are giving you trouble.

Summary

There are many ways to keep getting better over time. All of them look at how things were done in the past and try to figure out what could be done better. You can keep improving over time by:

◉ Keeping your process as waste-free as possible
◉ Setting up the right conditions for your team to improve
◉ Putting the PDCA cycle into action
◉ Always try to figure out why problems exist or could happen.
◉ Use the Kanban method to manage work flow.

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