Continuous improvement

Continual improvement can help your business steer a course through the uncertainty of Brexit, Neville Stein explains.

They say a week is a long time in politics, and major changes in the UK certainly have happened in a short period of time.

Since I started to think about this particular Brexit-themed management feature, prime minister Theresa May has announced a rough timetable for the Brexit process, giving businesses some time to plan, whether they like the idea or not.

Often macro issues such as this (those outside our control) hit us by surprise and we end up responding reactively. The events of 9/11, for example, with the shock waves throughout international political and business worlds, was obviously unforeseen and unpredicted. In this case, however, we know that Brexit is on the horizon, like an approaching weather front. But what we do not really know is how large the clouds, how strong the winds or how high the waves may be, although we do have time to prepare the ship. Improve your asset value So where should we start?

A crucial part of preparing your business for an unknown future should involve improving the net asset value on your balance sheet. If you can make more profits now, then they could be retained to help you through some choppy waters ahead, and perhaps the most significant and simple way to do this is by developing an organisational culture that is focused on continually improving.

Along with "lean" and "just in time" manufacturing principles, continuous improvement is a method for identifying opportunities for streamlining work and reducing waste. As a management tool it works on the premise that all operations, no matter how well managed, are capable of being improved.

Often known by the Japanese word "Kaizen", Masaaki Imai, the early thinker in continuous improvement, suggested that when used in the workplace it should apply to and involve absolutely everyone — and if it does not then huge potential is being wasted.

Ken Lewis, author of How to Transform Your Company & Enjoy It, wrote many years ago that for every 100 employees in a western company only 11 ideas are forthcoming from the workforce, whereas in Japanese firms the equivalent figure is 3,500.

Customer importance

How then do you set about creating a culture of continuous improvement in your organisation? The first way is to make the customer everyone’s business. This simply means that everyone in the organisation needs to be focused on the importance of the customer, and that each person can contribute to delivering more customer value even if they are not directly meeting the customer. For example, the order picker on a nursery can ensure that only the best quality is despatched, the delivery driver can be warm and friendly when he arrives at the garden centre and the receptionist can answer the telephone with a cheerful manner.

This is all about each member of staff putting themselves in the customer’s shoes. To bridge that gap between those who are a long way from the customer in your organisation, why not invite your customers along to see relevant teams, processes and how you work? When customers visit your business, introduce them to the order pickers, the accounts staff and so on. This really will work and give opportunities for sharing ideas and getting valuable feedback.

Simple and achievable

The second way to implement a continuous improvement culture is by engaging and explaining to all staff that the process is simple and achievable. Some people resist change if they view it as effort, tiring and difficult. Continuous improvement should be gradual and constant — small steps, small changes. It should not be disruptive or cause upheaval. Everyone should be empowered to see themselves as an "improver" and a powerhouse of ideas — that they can make small minor improvements daily in the way they conduct their job and within the business.

Streamlining the way staff suggestions and ideas are considered and implemented is important so staff can see that their input is quickly taken seriously and of use. Improved communication with your staff is part of this streamlining and involving them more will encourage them to see that they are real stakeholders in the business. Having a quick five-minute meeting at the till, for example, is a good way to reinforce the continuous improvement message daily, to iron out problems and quickly identify any changes in working practices that can be implemented. It establishes a daily momentum for improvements to be made, so it becomes part of the daily norm and not something you just encourage at annual staff appraisals.

Challenge your staff to think more about what they are doing, give them the authority to make changes and reward them with praise and recognition when those changes have borne fruit. You want to get to a stage where employees stop saying: "Why doesn’t the management?" and start saying: "Why don’t I?" and: "Why don’t we?". Implementation model As with most processes, there are models to follow. The classic model to enable implementation of continuous improvement is the PDCA cycle — plan, do, check, act. This four-step model is based on a circle, to be constantly repeated.

The cycle is:

1 Plan Recognise an opportunity or a problem for a small improvement and plan a change.
2 Do Proceed to carry out the change.
3 Check Review the change, analyse the results (they might be time-saving, increased output etc) and identify what it is that you have learned.
4 Act Take action and implement the revised change. If the plan failed to work, then go through the problem again, identify another possible change and use the cycle with a different plan. Learn from other firms

Finally, look outwards and learn from other businesses around you — and not just those in our sector. There is now so much free advice, expertise and examples of excellent practice out there to be researched, sifted through and applied to our own models of work. Can you send yourself or your staff out on study days, or even on simple trips to other businesses to pick up tips and ideas that you could use?

Continuous improvement also means continuous learning, so no more resting on those laurels. Look inwards, look outwards and get prepared.

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