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6 September 2020
Process Improvement

LEAN PRINCIPLES FOR SME’s Principle 5 – Continuous Improvement is a culture not a Department


Are your manual processes a barrier towards greater productivity?  Do you engage and empower your teams to strip away waste & inefficiency?  Do your staff embrace continuous improvement as the norm?

My 5 blog series for business owners and leaders, will focus your efforts to emerge renewed and reenergized after lockdown

Principle 5 – Continuous Improvement is a Culture, not a Department

The last 4 blogs in this series discussed how the principles of LEAN can be applied to any business. The previous four principles have provided you with a framework of how to 

The final principal of LEAN is to build on all of the above to nurture and sustain a culture of continuous improvement.  That is engaging and empowering every member of your team, to adopt a culture of improving their work processes in small incremental steps, following the Plan, Do, Check, Act cycle of a robust management system.

If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it!

I’ve often extolled the virtues of the phrase “if you can’t measure it you can’t manage it”.  In continuous improvement behaviour, the small problems and points of potential waste in the way people work, is not immediately obvious let alone measurable.  Your teams need to be encouraged to take the initiative of coming forward with ideas and suggestions as to where these tiny, seemingly insignificant, imperfections may be occurring in the everyday minutae of their work.  This takes some training and practice as well as regular reviews and team chats to build their confidence in coming forward.


Toyota employed the idea of Kaizen, the everyday improvement in all departments and areas of the organisation, to encourage all the staff in the cause of fixing problems, and raising standards of excellence.  Those businesses that make significant training investments to equip and empower the front line workers with the skills and tools they need to remove waste, inefficiencies and drive improvement, are significantly more successful when applying these LEAN concepts.

However, the improvements must be tangible and based on hard data gathered over a period of time, not just based on gut feel or perception.  This brings us round to the point of measuring in order to manage the performance and quality.  This is where the simple PDCA cycle of Plan, Do, Check, Act (check out the Deming or Shewhart cycle) can be applied on the front line.  Once the inefficiency or problem has been identified this cycle can then be used to determine how to reduce or eliminate it.  


The first step is to establish how the process, or behaviour needs, to change to achieve the result needed, ie. how will the work be done differently to achieve first time quality or reduce the time or defect?  Depending on the root cause and complexity of the problem, this might involve a team brainstorming session, or may be as simple as the employee discussing possible solutions with their manager and given the go ahead to test these.  At this stage it needs to be agreed what parameters or information will be gathered to measure how successful the change is, in reducing the problem.


Go ahead and implement the options for potential solutions in the work place.  During this step the employee needs to record and take the measurements agreed in the Planning stage.  This may be the time taken to complete a step of the process, the number of rejects or complaints that arise compared to previously, over maybe a day or a week depending on the frequency or number of occasions the process has to be carried out to gather enough representative information.


Analyse the date and the results gathered from the DO phase and evaluate against your goals or targets of expected/desired outcomes.  Using charts or graphs is sometimes easier to immediately visualize the impact (or not) on improving or reducing the problem. You can then start to see which changes work better than others, and see if they can be further refined to really reach the optimum working process.


This final stage to Act, or Adjust, is where the process is improved.  The data gathered from the Do and Check phases help identify issues with this process.  These may include knock-on problems, non-conformities with the system or work flow, opportunities for improvement, inefficiencies or other issues that results in poor quality, defects, rejects or complaints. 

At the point of taking action or adjusting the workers behaviour, root causes can be further exposed and eliminated by modifying the process.  The end of the ACT stage is when the process has better instructions, higher standards or increased goals.

Planning for the next cycle can proceed with the improved results forming a new base line ie. your now improved process becomes the norm, and future improvements would be measured against this – not the previous base using the old methods.

It is this incremental shift in the departments base performance measure that defines continuous improvement – gradually spiraling towards an ever increasing perfection – although it’s arguable that in a shifting market place, and new technologies being used, true perfection would ever truly be achieved. 

Lean companies give their employees total authority to initiate change at their respective level of responsibility. The PDCA Cycle depends on the initiatives being carried out in a disciplined way which maintains the employees accountability at all times.  However, with greater clarity and transparency for the team member to demonstrate how their ideas have been instrumental in improving the results of their area, the business owner will be better placed to reward their efforts and gain greater loyalty and employee engagement amongst their teams.