Continuous improvement, based on Japanese concept called KAIZEN, is the philosophy of continually seeking ways to improve operations. It involves identifying benchmarks of excellent practice and instilling a sense of employee ownership of the process.
The focus can be on reducing the length of time required to process requests for loans in bank, the amount of scrap generated at a milling machine, or the number of employee injuries. Continuous improvement also can focus on problems with customers or suppliers, such as customer who request frequent changes in shipping quantities and suppliers that fail to maintain high quality. The bases of continuous improvement philosophy are the beliefs that virtually any aspect of an operation can be improved and that the people most closely associated with an operation are in the best position to identify the changes that should be made.
Consequently, employee involvement plays a big role in continuous improvement programs. The idea is not wait until a massive problem occurs before acting.
Getting Started with Continuous Improvement
Instilling a philosophy of continuous improvement in an organization may be a lengthy process, and several steps are essential to its eventual success such as:
- Train employees in the methods of statistical process control (SPC) and other tools for improving quality.
- Make SPC methods a normal aspect of daily operations.
- Build work teams and employee involvement.
- Utilize problem-solving techniques within the work teams.
- Develop sense of operator ownership of the process.
It is important to note that employee involvement is central to the philosophy of continuous improvement. However, the last two steps are crucial if the philosophy is to become part of everyday operations. Problem solving addresses the aspects of operations that need improvement and evaluate alternatives for achieving improvements. A sense of operator;s ownership emerges when employees feel as if they own the processes and methods they use and take pride in the quality of the product or service they produce.
Problem Solving Process
Most firms actively engage in continuous improvement train their work teams to use the plan-do-check-act cycle for problem solving. Another name for this approach is Deming Wheel, which lies at the heart of the continuous improvement philosophy. The cycle comprises the following steps:
1. Plan: The team selects a process (activity, method, machine, or policy, for example) that needs improvement. The team then documentss the selected process usually by analyzing data (using 7QC tools); sets qualitative goals for improvement; and discusses various ways to achieve the goals. After assessing the benefits and costs of the alternatives, the team develops a plan wit quantifiable measures for improvement.
2. Do: The team implements the plan and monitors progress. Data are collected continuously to measure the improvements in the process. Any changes in the process are documented, amd further revisions are made as needed.
3. Check: The team analyzes the data collected during the do step to find our how closely they correspond to the goals set forth in the plan step. If major shortcomings exist, team may have to reevaluate the plan or stop the project.
4. Act: If the result are successful, the team documents the revised process so that it becomes the standard procedure for all who may use it. The team may then instruct other employees in use of the revised process.
Problem solving projects often focus on those aspects of operations that do not add value to the product or service. Value is added during operations such as machining a part or serving a customer. No value is added in activities such as inspecting parts for quality defects or routing requests for loan approvals to several different departments. The idea of continuous improvement is that activities that do not add value are wasteful and should be reduced or eliminated.