Continuous improvement

Most of us make regular small improvements to the way we work. Teams and leaders need to do the same.

A systematic approach to making regular small improvements keeps our products and services in the best possible shape. (We're not covering larger scale changes in this section. For those, take a look at Change programmes and the development exercise "Building commitment to change").

The 3D improvement cycle

The 3D improvement cycle suggests that we first Define what we are aiming for, then we Develop and analyse potential improvements, and finally we implement and Deliver the new ways of working. The process is normally one of constantly going back and forth between the stages to refine the final improvements.

Even if we don’t use the model explicitly, just having it in the back of our minds will make our thinking about potential improvements more rigorous.

1. Define objectives

We need to be clear and as precise as possible about what we are trying to accomplish. We are not just looking for change for change's sake – we need to identify the particular measures that will show us that a change is actually an improvement. What measures can we use to identify that an adjustment actually improves matters? Can we set precise targets to aim for that will make the changes worthwhile?

Have we thought through any likely knock-on effects to other areas? We don’t want to find that improvements in one area set off unintended consequences somewhere else. If this looks possible you may want to extend your improvement focus until you are happy you have identified a relatively self-contained area.

2. Develop better processes

This is the heart of the improvement cycle. It will normally involve:

  1. collecting and analyzing “data” about the current situation. This data may be numerical, but it might also be anecdotes, feedback or just the team’s hunches about how things are working now.
  2. sharing ideas and formulating possibilities; thinking them though and selecting the best.
  3. testing them out on a small pilot scale if you can and collecting and analyzing new data to see if they yield the right results. You may well want to involve more people to check out how they may be affected, and ask for their views.
  4. repeating the process - refining them until you have modifications that you think are worth implementing

3. Deliver

Finally you are ready to roll the improvements out. This is often the hardest part. You will need to implement the changes thoughtfully and thoroughly, explain the changes to people, monitor their impact, talk to people who are affected, adapt and document new processes.

This is a mixture of practical implementation and listening to how the changes are being received. If some are uncomfortable with your proposals may have as much to do on the "winning hearts and minds" front as you do on the practical side. Our resistance to change section and "Building commitment to change" development exercise has plenty of detail on how to give your team the best chance of success.

If the improvements start to multiply into a bigger "change programme", check out our Change programmes section. It will guide you through the steps you need for take.

Breakthrough thinking

Sometimes it can be helpful to inject extra energy into a team’s thinking by imagining that you have a specific and serious crisis that you have to sort out in a very short period of time without any extra resources. Examples might be – we have to get ten new clients in the next three weeks, or we have to get 100% customer satisfaction ratings by the end of the month.

The rationale for this comes from research that has found that “crisis” thinking gives a team a specific and immediate target, where failure is not an option. In these circumstances teams rise to the challenge, cast aside non-essential tasks and bickering and show increased commitment to finding solutions.

The resulting focus and improved teamwork can be used to energise everyday performance improvement meetings.