While innovation is typically perceived as one disruptive change that sets you apart from the competition, more often than not, innovation is an accumulation of many small improvements that eventually lead to a competitive advantage and all the other great things associated with innovation.
Although innovation certainly requires creativity, which can sometimes take the form of a one-time light-bulb moment, innovation can also take the form of systematic and strategic continuous improvement, which is much more sustainable and profitable, and, crucially, less risky.
To make the continuous improvement process more systematic and increase the chances of success, businesses can use a variety of tools and methods that provide a structured approach to your innovation program. Here, we explore some of the most well-known continuous improvement tools to help you accelerate your business growth, improve your processes and solve your problems.
Lean Six Sigma
Lean Six Sigma is a methodical way of identifying and reducing errors, and increasing the quality of processes. It focuses on constant improvement, gaining increasing quality control and eliminating variability. It first became popular in the manufacturing industry, but is now applied to processes across the business spectrum, not just in manufacturing.
Six Sigma is designed to improve efficiency and productivity in a company's systems by focusing on operational excellence and "doing things right." It fosters a very low tolerance for risk because risk increases variation.
DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control) is a systematic Six Sigma process used to perfect business processes already in place:
D - Address the identification of specific processes to be examined (internal and external) in deliverables.
M - Record data and use metrics to track effectiveness, evaluate efficiencies, and determine current performance.
A - Utilize critical thinking skills to analyze data and clarify goals, and the root causes of defects, and then readjust and re-establish control.
I – Create changes in business processes geared toward improvement in production costs to improve the process by eliminating the defects.
C – Build a system of checks and adjustments for ongoing improvement in production process to establish and control future processes and performance.
Kaizen, meaning “change for the better”, is a term that derives from Japan and is often used to describe a philosophy of continuous improvement. The essence of Kaizen is consistently making small, incremental improvements in processes, products, and services.
The Kaizen methodology encourages all employees to participate in the process of improvement, fostering a culture of empowerment and innovation and encouraging employees to take an active role beyond their job description.
Kaizen’s popularity derives from its focus on continuous learning and sustainable improvement through small changes accumulated over time. One of the most effective ways to facilitate Kaizen’s methodology is through implementing an innovation management program that all the employees in your organization can access. You can pose a question or a problem that needs to be solved and open it up to the whole (or selected members of your) workforce. Creating an idea channel or idea campaign that’s always open enables your employees to propose ideas about how to improve a certain part or process of your business, or come up with solutions to an ongoing problem.
Root Cause Analysis
Typically, you can’t solve a problem without knowing its root cause. As such, root cause analysis (RCA) is a very popular problem-solving technique used to identify the causes of issues and then analyzing how to solve them, rather than resolving the “symptoms.” This enables businesses to identify more effective and sustainable solutions, and often requires business leaders to go back to the drawing board to assess what works and what doesn’t. It’s a methodology that has long-term value and the time invested in this approach usually pays off further down the line.
Root cause analysis involves five main steps:
- Define the problem: What isn’t working?
- Gather data: Evaluate the situation and back it by data.
- Identify causal factors: What has led to the problem?
- Determine the root cause(s) by using “the five why” methodology, or change analysis.
- Recommend and implement solutions.
No doubt we’ve all heard the saying “Show me, don’t tell me” and it’s certainly the case that information presented in a visual way is often easier to digest. That’s why process mapping is one of the most effective methods of continuous improvement. By providing a clear visual representation of the flow of steps in a process, this approach enables businesses to identify bottlenecks and areas for improvement as well as assessing where redundancies might be required and where delays occur.
Pareto analysis, also known as the 80/20 rule, is essentially a prioritization technique that enables businesses to identify the activities that are creating the most value or having the greatest impact on solving a problem. According to the Pareto principle, around 80% of effects are the result of 20% of causes.
Why does this matter for continuous improvement? Imagine you’re solving a problem and that, together with your team, you come up with hundreds of ideas for solving it. This is where Pareto analysis comes in. You won’t be able to implement and execute all of the ideas, but you can analyze them and assess which will likely be the most effective at solving the problem.
It also works the other way around. Let’s say you have hundreds of problems that need to be solved. Pareto can help you identify which problem, if solved, will have the greatest impact on your business.
Small changes, big effects!
Checklists are one of the simplest yet most powerful techniques for improving processes. They can be used across different functions, from simple administrative tasks to complicated production and quality control, from customer service to project management.
If a process is broken down into a checklist, you can ensure consistent implementation across your team and the whole business. Even if you have a high rotation of employees or only one person is responsible for the process, a checklist can help to ensure scalability and quality control.
In addition, if a process is broken down into a checklist, it’s easier to see where and how the process could be improved. The checklist can be continually updated and easily rolled out again.
Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) Cycle
The PDCA cycle, also known as the Deming cycle or Shewhart cycle, is a continuous improvement model that provides a structured approach to solving problems and testing solutions before fully implementing them. The PDCA cycle consists of four steps:
Plan: Identifying the problem and developing a plan
Do: Implementing the plan
Check: Evaluating and tracking the results
Act: Taking action to standardize or improve the process
The PDCA cycle is all about encouraging businesses to continuously monitor and improve their processes in order to continuously drive innovation across the organization.
TRIZ is a problem-solving method based on logic and data, aimed at accelerating the ability to solve problems creatively, with repeatability, predictability, and reliability.
Using algorithms, TRIZ (pronounced “trees”) takes a very structured, logical, and systematic approach to evaluating a problem and coming up with a unique or innovative solution. Problem-solving often requires an inductive/deductive reasoning process. You move from a specific problem to a generic problem (inductive), and then from this generic problem to a generic solution, then you return to a specific solution (deductive) through this process of reasoning and identification.
Continuous improvement is essential for businesses to stay competitive, control costs, and increase effectiveness. The tools mentioned here are just some examples of how to achieve this in a systematic way instead of leaving it to chance. As always, technology can help to drive continuous improvement seamlessly and effortlessly across large organizations in a transparent way. Find out more about continuous improvement solutions and how they can help you to supercharge your innovation program in our white paper.