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What is Continuous Improvement? Root Cause Analysis, Kanban, and More

April 6, 2023

Perfection isn’t a destination — it’s a journey that you edge toward over time by making gradual improvements. McKinsey found that one of its clients reduced the time involved in product testing by 80% due to various small changes made to its processes through continuous improvement. This is far from a one-off result. 

Let’s run through what continuous improvement is and related practices like root cause analysis. 

What is continuous improvement?
The concept of continuous improvement is known as kaizen, which means “change for the better.” Toyota put this concept into use by implementing a culture of continuous improvement by encouraging all employees to identify and address inefficiencies in the company’s processes and operations. It focuses on reducing three types of waste: Muda (waste), mura (inconsistency), and muri (overburden). 

Also, note that continuous improvement isn’t the same as continual improvement or continuous delivery, which both focus on updating products quickly using agile practices. 

Features of continuous improvement include: 

  • Everyone has the chance to give their ideas 
  • Encouragement for the team to raise ideas about small inefficiencies or problems before they become more significant issues 
  • The company reviews progress frequently and looks for improvements  
  • Frequent updating of processes and routines over time to ensure they’re still the best and most efficient  

The PDCA model
Now that we’ve got the basics covered, let’s look at implementing continuous improvement. 

One of the most popular approaches is the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle, which involves the following steps: 

  1. Plan: Identify an opportunity for improvement and develop a plan to address it. This may involve gathering data, analyzing current processes, and setting goals for the change. 
  2. Do: Implement the change you to test a change in a controlled environment before rolling it out more widely. 
  3. Check: Analyze the results to determine their impact by comparing them to the goals set in the planning stage. 
  4. Act: Based on the results of the evaluation, the change is either fully implemented or modified and tested again. If the change is successful, it is rolled out on a larger scale. If not, the process returns to the planning stage to identify new opportunities for improvement. 

Keep repeating this process over time and analyzing feedback to get the best results, a never-ending cycle. 

Root cause analysis
Another technique commonly used to carry out continuous improvement is root cause analysis. As the name suggests, this involves continually analyzing root causes. Ask yourself “why” again and again, until you finally identify the root cause. For example, a company that manufactures electronics may be experiencing a high rate of defects in one of its products. The company may find faulty raw materials. So, it asks itself why the raw materials are faulty, and so on — until reaching the true root cause. 

Then, it can apply and test solutions for the root cause of each problem. This usually takes multiple attempts. 

Lean kanban
The lean kanban method is a visual process management tool that helps organizations improve the efficiency of their workflows that Toyota first developed. 

The key element of the lean kanban method is the use of a visual board to track the progress of tasks. The board typically has three columns: Requested, In Progress, and Done. A card on the board represents each task, and as the task moves through the process, it is moved from one column to the next. This allows team members to see which tasks are being worked on, who is responsible for them, and where they are in the process. 

It involves six aspects: 

  • Visualizing workflow 
  • Eliminating interruptions 
  • Managing flow 
  • Making process policies clear 
  • Creating feedback loops 
  • Improving collaboration 

Note that you don’t have to choose a single method — you can use the lean kanban method alongside PCDA or root cause analysis. 

Time to improve
As you can see, there are various options for how you approach continuous improvement — and all of them can get results. The most important thing is taking the first steps. 

We’re here to be your partner in continuous improvement and can tailor our approach to your company needs. If you’d like to find out more, contact us to schedule a consultation.