5 Continuous Improvement Fundamentals

Organizations are often tempted to look for the “silver bullet” or “secret sauce” to getting improved results over time. The fact is, significant step changes that are sought after are often ill thought out, are not considered from a systemic perspective, and often result in unintended and adverse consequences. There are five key things that will make your efforts for continuous improvement resonate and deliver success. If you are concerned with getting support for improvement initiatives from leadership or management, remember this adage: The best way to get the support you need, is to deliver results at little or no cost.

A thoughtful, disciplined approach will drive continual continuous improvement across the enterprise. Step changes will be discovered naturally, rather than chased after. Here are five simple ways you can do that in your organization.

1. Standardize the Work

While attending university, I worked in a factory producing process cheese. Our team of blender operators noted we were not achieving the legal limit for moisture (water) in process cheese as defined by the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) due to significant variation. This was increasing cost and positioned the plant as a higher cost producer. Being a higher cost producer meant that new business would go to lower cost producing plants.

In a team meeting, supported by engineering, maintenance, and quality, we talked about how we might reduce the variation and improve our results. Our team was directly responsible for moisture content of the product we blended. It was incumbent upon us to figure this out and relatively quickly. The engineers supported a capital project that would make all sorts of mechanical improvements that would help reduce variation. Although we appreciated their ideas, we knew that capital projects took a couple of years to plan and a couple more to implement. This included studies, research, pilots, consultants, and the like. There was not time.

Our team of operators struck upon the idea of reducing human variation. Our jobs required that we rotate each week through six positions so that in six weeks we had spent a week in each position. Each had a potential impact on the moisture of the finished product. We hypothesized that by running a pilot, whereby we stayed in the same position for six weeks, that would reduce variation significantly. By so doing, we should be able to see improved results by that alone and nothing else. Our sponsor for the pilot was the QA Manager who was whole heartedly supportive of the initiative. We picked a date and launched the pilot.

Results improved significantly. It was all the buzz of the plant. Once we completed the pilot, we were able to acquire support to standardize the work for each of the six positions so that weekly rotations could continue but allow improvement to continue. We realized that if you do not have standard work, you cannot accurately measure results from the work that is being done. This was a key learning for all of us.

2. Stabilize the Process

Later in my tenure producing process cheese, I moved from the team of blender operators to the casting team. In this role, we ran all the equipment from a control room. Numerous amounts of data were collected, collated, and made visual using a SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) system. We could see how the entire process was running and whether it was running in a stable state. As operators, we constantly sought a stable process for several reasons. Some of our motives were selfish. An unstable process meant more work. This came from capturing product unfit for use and reworking it into the process. This was a waste of time, labor, and money.


The more important reason was that when the process was stable, we knew that all the metrics we were responsible for on our various teams were doing well. We knew the limitations of the process and so we could gently push it to capacity. If, as casting operators controlling the whole process, we saw we could push the line faster, we would check upstream with the blending team that provided us with formulated product and downstream with the packaging operators. Our desire was to coordinate efforts and get everyone’s’ buy-in to push harder. When everything was humming well, we all worked hard, and we worked together, and we were happy. Quite often in these cases we would break one production record or another. This gave a boost to morale and gave us something to reflect on and motivate us when things were not in a stable process.

3. Trust the Data

We had an operator once that worked in the control room, whom I will call “Steve”. Steve was a tweaker. Despite all our training in Statistical Process Control (SPC), he could not trust the data. If he saw a spike or dip in random variation, rather than refer to the seven rules of control we used in our process, he would panic and adjust. Before waiting for the process to stabilize, if he saw another data point that made him nervous, he would make another adjustment. In our SPC universe this was referred to as adjusting on an adjustment.

This is also referred to as over-correction. This phenomenon can most easily be explained by how drivers often behave while driving on slippery surfaces. They start to slide in one direction. They correct. Their correction may have been too much or just made them nervous. The correct against their early correction and now the vehicle is out of control and either careening or spinning on the slick surface. Adjusting on an adjustment is the same concept in an operational environment. As a note, everyone dreaded when “Steve” was at the controls because they knew we were likely in for a rough shift.

Conversely, there were operators that trusted what the data was telling them. They could get the process stable and in so doing either have a smooth shift, or a shift that, if all concerned were on board, could potentially break a record.

4. Test Improvements

If the process is stable and people trust the data the process is giving them, great things can happen. An operator might see an opportunity to make an adjustment that would improve quality, throughput, or both. Operators would convene in the control room with representatives of the upstream, downstream teams, and control room teams. They would discuss the opportunity, the adjustment, the potential upside, and the possible risks. The operator making the suggested adjustment, having achieved consensus, would make the adjustment, and monitor for four blends (about 28,000 lbs. of cheese). If during that time it became evident the adjustment was not producing the expected result, then he would return to the previous state. Otherwise, the improvement would remain in place for the run, unless another opportunity became apparent.

This was true with projects such as the one piloted at the beginning of this post. Every improvement, from any source or for any process was tested, and results evaluated, before it was implemented. This minimized loss of time and resources and prevented rework. It also fostered a learning environment and helped develop natural curiosity about the process.

5. Celebrate Results

This is an important element of any process improvement initiative. Celebrating results does not necessarily mean pizza parties and gift cards, although they can be incorporated into noteworthy achievements. Celebrating results means when there is a win because things went well, to acknowledging that win in whatever form your organization utilizes. Celebrations should be commensurate with the stature and scope of the win, whether team, shift, or plant.

Celebrating results includes results from failures. Not the results or the failure themselves, but that there was something learned from the failure. Celebrating failures reinforces that it is OK to try. It is OK to make mistakes if we learn from them and share the learnings so they can be applied across the shift, plant, or enterprise.

Celebration of results promotes a “learning organization” and a learning organization is an organization that is focused in continuous improvement at all levels and functions of the organization.

These fundamentals are simple to apply. If you don’t have them in place across your organization, no worries. Apply them within your sphere of influence. Watch the results improve. Then watch your sphere of influence grow as well.

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