The practice of continuous improvement is a method of identifying new opportunities to be lean, to further streamline work and reduce wasted effort and materials. The practice is a formal part of Lean Six Sigma or Kaizen as taught and instituted in manufacturing and business all over the world.

First of all, continuous improvement requires an adjustment of management style that recognizes the observational skills and creativity of rank and file employees. People working in the day-to-day operation of a business are often in the best position to find wasteful energies and processes. Continuous improvement requires a business culture in which employees feel they can freely identify problems and criticize processes without fear of retaliation by management.

Improvements often come from small changes, many of which originate from the workers themselves. These changes are likely to be easy to implement incremental changes in processes that do not cost large capital investments. The philosophy of continuous improvement demands that all employees take responsibility for their jobs and improve their own performance.

The key principle of continuous improvement is that employees engage in a regular Plan-Do-Study-Adjust (PDSA) cycle. Many organizations establish formal quality control circles that meet regularly to make suggestions and observations that become part of implementation plans. The circles develop plans for small changes, test the plans, and evaluate their effects. If new methods are found to be effective improvements, they are integrated into daily routine.

When a pharmaceutical company began operating a Lean Six Sigma plant, operators in their PDSA meetings identified several potential root causes of lingering inefficiency. They developed a measuring system to document cause-and-effect relationships. This success made the operator staff more confident, knowing that the company was serious about continuous improvement. During a period of nine months, the company reduced unplanned downtime in packaging by fixing problems of dust, lack of cooperation between packaging lines, incorrect machine calibration, and lack of proactive maintenance. The continuous improvement process grew into a new common working culture. Measuring, analyzing, and implementing actions became part of everyday practice.

Thomas Pyzdek is a world authority on Six Sigma and Lean Six Sigma training.

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