Practical Tips for Continual Improvement

PwC London Office

Continually improving an organisation is easy… you just have your people do things a little bit better each day, you celebrate and reward good behaviour, you investigate when things don’t go as they should, and you amend processes to ensure issues do not recur. And what possibly could be hard about that?

Lots of things! You’re dealing with people, your measures aren’t robust, you don’t know if things are actually getting better, you don’t have the time to investigate properly, and you certainly do not have the time to celebrate. And of course, nobody wants to amend the process as we all operate using the PDCA method –Please Don’t Change Anything!

In this article, we highlight simple things that an organisation might try, some practical tips for continual improvement. And this can be applied across the organisation as a whole or to single departments or individual processes.

1. Decide what it is you do, and your objective.

What is it that your organisation does? Try and put this into a simple statement and be as specific as you can. Don’t say “we want to be the best” or “we want to delight our customers”; say things like “we answer our phone within three rings” or “we clean up after ourselves”.

Recently, I was helping a transport business and I introduced them to the term DIFOT (delivered in full on time). However for this business, the term did not adequately capture the essence of what they did. They needed to include “undamaged” and “to the correct address”. So their overarching objective became:

All Items delivered undamaged on time and to the correct address.

This is not as succinct as DIFOT, but it does better represent what they do.

2. Measure it.

There is the old saying: ”If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it” from management guru Dr. Peter Drucker. There are of course people who disagree, but I think Drucker is onto something. Measure how the organisation is performing against what it has decided it does – and in the example I used above, this means measuring things like time of delivery, damage, correct address and quantity delivered.
In many cases, the information is already available, so it’s simply a case of accessing it. And just pick the main measures. Many organisations collect far too much data, then do nothing (absolutely nothing!) with it.

3. Involve your people.

Once you sort out which measures are needed, have those who are directly involved collect and collate the data. This involvement will not only interest them but it will also motivate them – and if you don’t believe me, look up “The Hawthorne Effect” and the research done by Elton Mayo at the Hawthorne Works (a Western Electric factory near Chicago) in 1924-1932.

A crucial element in Mayo’s findings was the effect that people working in groups had on each individual.

4. Make it visible.

Have those people collecting the data clearly display the results up on the wall on visual indicator boards. Using whiteboards and coloured marker pens, they can graph and plot the data to show where things are improving (or getting worse). Nowadays some people use monitors or data projectors, but (and this is the key) the monitors or the projected images need to be big and clear so that everyone can see the information. The information should not be buried in a spreadsheet and require a login for someone to view. It needs to be big, it needs to be clear, and it needs to be visible to all.

By displaying the information out in the open and by using colours (green for good and red for less good), it will be clear for all to see what is working well and what is not.

5. Lock it in.

Once the team has worked out what works and therefore what should be changed, the changes need to be locked in. In many cases, this means updating a procedure and re-issuing it to those who need it – but does that really mean that the change has been locked in? The Japanese use the term ‘Poka Yoke’ which means mistake proofing; and in the OHS hierarchy of control, an engineering control sits higher than an administrative control. So do something that actually locks the change in rather than just changing something in a document that most probably nobody will read anyway.

‘Poka Yoke’ was invented in the 1960’s by a Japanese engineer called Shigeo Shingo, author of the brilliant book “Zero Quality Control: Source Inspection and the Poka-yoke System”.

6. Celebrate the win.

I don’t know why, but for many people, celebrating a win seems quite hard to do – and it shouldn’t be. When you have decided that the project is over, that it has reached its objective or achieved a certain milestone, arrange a celebration for those involved. Have a barbeque, order in sandwiches, go and play bowls, give everyone a certificate. It doesn’t have to be much, but you should do something to reward people’s good behaviour and celebrate their success. And make sure the celebration is about them, not about you. Remember to thank them!

The simple task of expressing genuine thanks will go a very long way; and it will leave a lasting impression, ensuring even greater success next time.

In summary…

This is by no means a comprehensive list of every possible activity that an organisation should do to improve itself. But hopefully it does explain that if you want to improve something, then put it out in the open, be visible and transparent about it, and have those people involved work it out for themselves.

For more information on continual improvement, come along to our three-day Risk and Business Continuity course. It includes a whole day on our six-step continual improvement methodology including many practical tools and tips.

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