In Asia, temples and shrines are often built in the mountains. And the most sacred altar is usually the highest sanctuary. Anyone wishing to visit that highest sanctuary has to walk through dense forest, steep stone steps and under many wooden gateways that are the only markers of the paths. Worshipers say that getting to the shrine is almost as important as the worship itself. In fact, many taking the journey find answers to their questions along the way and turn back to take the path another day.
Continuous improvement is much like this search for the shrine. The pathway in continuous improvement is often more significant than the destination. It is the individual search for small ways to improve in our jobs that help achieve the long-term goals of departments and, collectively, of the organization.
Goals for achieving quality within departments are destinations – and sometimes, it is the small improvements that each individual makes during their journey that helps the department reach its goals.
Improvement efforts are accomplished through key steps:
- Process redesign, where a significant portion of the work process is changed.
- Large-scale efficiency changes and smaller, immediate changes known as “Quick Wins.”
- Formal approval from executive management through a presentation of the changes.
- Implementation of changes with a dedication to documentation of the new process.
- Evaluation over time to ensure success.
Basics of Continuous Improvement
Continuous improvement assumes that employees will use their brains as well as their hands. An unskilled worker–brand new at his or her job–is concerned with learning the job, following instructions and developing skills. When the employee learns the skills and becomes proficient at the job, then that employee begins to think about how that job could be done better. Perhaps more quickly, perhaps with fewer errors or less movement of files, perhaps with some increased value to the customer.
- Focuses on daily opportunities–including both large and small work processes as well as opportunities for individuals to improve their work processes.
- Makes small, incremental changes continuously.
- Receives recognition from department–team members and managers as well as executive management on an ongoing basis.
- Involves all team members–all team members contribute ideas and support one another when making changes.
Implementing Continuous Improvement
How can you implement continuous improvement? The first step is to provide a formal means for sharing ideas. As a manager, you can foster a culture of openness that encourages innovation and new ideas. As well as provide employees with a forum in which to share ideas. Second, ensure employees have your support. Continuous improvement must not only be supported by managers, but also recognized by managers. Improvements made by individuals can be recognized through the annual performance review process. Team improvements can be recognized in staff meetings and through public recognition in the organization (i.e., newsletters, intranets, Board meetings). Finally, to implement continuous improvement, employees need time set aside for identifying opportunities for improvement in the workplace.
By dedicating time to examining their processes, employees will be encouraged to continually initiate improvements that may save time, effort and resources. Each improvement, whether made by an individual, work team or process improvement team, leads one step farther along the path to the destination hidden through the forest and high in the mountains.
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