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Continuous Improvement; direction and progress is more important than perfection!

When I speak to managers about their continuous improvement programmes there is a common concern. ‘Am I doing it right?’ is the question that they often ask me. There seems to be a common belief that there is a right way to do continuous improvement. There isn’t. There are lots of ways to make it better, but there isn’t a single one right way to carry out continuous improvement.

Note – over time you will likely find ways that work well for your organisation in terms of how you manage change. This can become your one best way to implement continuous improvement projects. But if you haven’t got there yet, don’t worry! The Standard Operating Procedure for making change happen in your business can come later.

A path with unexpected turns

One of the joys of continuous improvement is the learning that can take place. The journey is full of twists and turns. People are unpredictable and that can bring with it new ideas and difficulties. 

Learning from these as you undertake your continuous improvement projects will make you better at handling future projects.

At the outset continuous improvement can be difficult. Every difficulty is an opportunity to improve. Your planning will improve. Your communication will improve. Your knowledge about your business and its process will improve. Your team working will improve. If you embrace the learning that comes along with your projects you will become better and in the long term that means better results from your improvements.

Involving other people, from across your business, adds in new perspectives which can help you to identify additional improvements. Take the rough of the unchartered course with the smooth of having lots of improvement opportunities to deal with.

Frameworks are good, but they’re frameworks

There are a lot of improvement frameworks available to us. They give clues as to how you could conduct a continuous improvement programme, but it is your approach that is most important in the long term. These comments are not designed to devalue improvement frameworks, they can add some real value to a business when kept in context.

Improvement frameworks provide structure to facilitate conversations and projects. You will need some structure to help move things along, but it doesn’t need to be a rigid structure. Knowing how you want an improvement to proceed and mapping it out is enough for most businesses.

When it comes to making change happen it is your team, your content and your plan. Get yourself a framework if you feel it will help you. If you want to do your own thing then do your own thing.

Take the bits you like from existing frameworks and create a variation. The aim of continuous improvement is to make things better. I think that in the longer term businesses have to move to structured improvement, but if it is early days for you then don’t get hung up on the approach.

Doing it right versus doing something

If you get hung up on carrying out your continuous improvements perfectly you are unlikely to make the level of progress you could. If you aren’t entirely sure how an improvement methodology works (and have no reasonably immediate way of finding out) then what do you do?

You could stop and do nothing. You could accept that you are stuck and watch the improvement fizzle out.

Or, you could do something and risk making progress. Imperfect action is often the right thing to do and can take you a long way along the journey of change. If you are fully engaged with the change process then you should find that you learn a lot with imperfect action. As you learn more you can improve and it is likely that pieces of the jigsaw puzzle will fall into place.

I have seen many intelligent people get stuck because they try to ‘get it right’. Consequently they are slow and sluggish at making change happen. This slowness then gets in the way of their day to day job and becomes resented. Very quickly these people stop actively engaging with continuous improvement.

Don’t worry about doing things right and instead focus on making change happen. Perfection can come later.

Getting results in a healthy manner is what counts

What is the worst thing that can happen if you don’t follow a perfect continuous improvement scheme, or path?

The worst is that you have learned something that will make you better next time around. Most likely you will have learned a great deal and made some positive changes. Even the things that haven’t gone well can be improved. Bridges can be re-built and working relationships strengthened.

It is more likely that you will make a whole load of business activities better with a few bumps along the way. You will have made progress that you can celebrate with your team. You will all have learned something and you will probably now be in a better place to shape your continuous improvement approach going forward.

There is nothing to worry about when reflecting on your journey. There is no one perfect route and things will occasionally be difficult and go wrong periodically. Sounds a lot like life in general!

If you feel this way then relax. Reflect on this article, look in the mirror and decide what you think would work best for you and your business. Instinctively you will know how to proceed; planning will only get you so far. Action must happen at some point in order for change to manifest.

Enjoy the journey. If you embrace it properly you won’t be the same person afterwards!


About the author Giles Johnston is a Chartered Engineer who specialises in helping businesses to grow and improve through better business processes. Giles is also the author of Business Process Re-Engineering and creator of the 'Making It Happen' continuous improvement toolkit.

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