Richard Branson knows a thing or two about ideas. One of his favourite quotes is from Alfred North Whitehead, the ground-breaking philosopher and mathematician: “Ideas won’t keep. Something must be done about them.” Enter continuous improvement (CI).
We’ve all been there. A flash of inspiration hits: what a great idea! But we forget to write it down or, if we do record it, we get bogged down with other demands. Problems and barriers emerge. Instead of changing, things stay the same. In a company, this means stagnation.
Ideas are the remedy for stagnation. They could be small yet highly consequential. How well a company can support and implement those ideas to innovate is a good predictor of future success.
This is a challenge for many organisations. There are plenty of good ideas that aren’t implemented. Execution falls short, often because the organisation’s cultural support for ideation is lacking. It’s a common problem, but one that has finally found its solution in a revolutionary concept: continuous improvement.
What can businesses do to create a CI culture and to deliver on their ideas? Let’s start by better understanding what continuous improvement is and why it is so important.
So, what does it mean?
CI is an ongoing focus and mindset that drives improved products, services and processes. The objective of CI is to ensure operations are as efficient as possible by removing waste, reducing errors and finding opportunities to add value. A business can benefit from the fruits of CI: increased productivity, engaged employees, higher profits and innovation that will lead to happier customers. In CI, changes aren’t exclusively pursued when there are serious issues at hand. It enables a company to never stop striving for improvement.
The methodology is based on customer and employee feedback, as well as enabling employees to enact changes. This doesn’t mean every employee has to become technically skilled. But if an employee has an idea, is there a pipeline they can follow? Will their ideas be taken seriously? Do decision-makers have access to resources and levers to support such an idea?
CI culture is a gamechanger. It challenges the notion that change only happens through big projects and enables anyone in the organisation to participate.
In CI, an idea can be pursued to its logical conclusion, spearheaded by the people who best understand those systems and processes. Someone loading a truck, for example, has a view of the processes and logistics involved. They are more likely to spot opportunities for improvement. A CI culture offers them that capability.
This isn’t achieved overnight. It is an ongoing effort that requires the support of the entire company, notably the leadership team. CI goals should be established and staff need to be trained to help deliver this change. If you create a culture of change and improvement, CI becomes embedded as a way of working.
CI isn’t a magic wand. Not all challenges require a CI project. Nor is it a system that you shoehorn employees into. CI empowers employees and recognises their efforts. It needs staff to be curious and engaged. But CI is also very flexible: even though it is an overpowering change agent, you can pace its rollout and adoption.
A culture that invites ideas from all its people creates an engaged and passionate workforce, not to mention the immense goodwill generated with the customers you demonstrably listen to.
Do not shoot ideas down. Encourage your staff to speak up and bring their ideas to the table. Allow ideas to have a real chance of becoming something more. Continuous improvement isn’t a trendy fad. It’s the business culture of the future.
Anna Chetty is Strategic Project Manager at RS Components South Africa, a market leader in the high service level distribution of electrical, electronic, mechanical, tools and industrial products. Visit: za.rs-online.com