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Further thoughts on continual improvement

The promise is grand: if our organization adopts a continual improvement practice, we’ll have a robust and agile motor to drive us into the future./1/ The core ideas and methods behind continual improvement are simple, super simple. But, the implementation is deceptively hard. I have be reading, thinking and writing a lot about continual improvement and how to embed it into an organization’s practices. I’d like to capture some of my reflections.

Why continual improvement is simple

Continual improvement is a straightforward concept: we want to improve our practices, processes, procedures, results etc. regularly and repeatedly. With that, we have a mechanism for meeting any challenge, since improving is integrated in how we work. It is part of becoming a learning organization, as highlighted by Peter Senge./2/ This mechanism is famously captured in the Deming Cycle “Plan-Do-Check-Act”, as formulated by W. Edwards Deming based on the Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle of his mentor, Walter Shewhart. /3/ Plan-Do-Check-Act is also simple on the face of it. 

As is generally known, P-D-C-A is nothing but an empirical approach that follows the scientific method. Let’s spell it out:

Plan: we identify a deficit and think about how to improve it. The scientist proposes an hypothesis and sets up an experiment to test it.

Do: we implement the improvement. The scientist runs her experiment.

Check/Study: we review the results. Did we actually achieve an improvement? If not, we adjust and try again. The scientist analyses the results to see whether the hypothesis has been confirmed or rejected. 

Act: we decide whether to accept the improvement into our body of standards and practices. If yes, we’ll have some work here to do so (documentation, communication etc.), hence “act”. The scientist (or rather the scientific community) decides whether to accept the hypothesis into what we regard as established knowledge. 

Of course, the cycle requires adequate measurement of the baseline and the improvement to ascertain whether we’ve actually gained anything. Deming was a statistician, so measurement was fundamental to his thinking.

The beauty of the P-D-C-A cycle lies in its experimental nature. We test whether our proposed improvement helps. If it doesn’t, we rework it and try again. P-D-C-A is thus more than just a practice or a procedure. It’s a habit of mind or an approach to solving problems. It emphasizes the playful, creative nature of experimenting. It’s an attitude free from fears and concerns about making mistakes. It does require discipline at each step: using measurements, proceeding carefully, agreeing with stakeholders, ensure that what we have learned becomes part of organizational knowledge. Properly used it thrives and fosters the kind of safe space needed by truly agile organizations./4/


Why continual improvement is so hard

The simplicity of the P-D-C-A cycle is deceptive. It has been mentioned so often, that people tend not to think about it. They say, “Yes, great idea, let’s do it”, without reflecting about what it entails for an organization actually to adopt it. It’s taught in many workshops and seminars with a single slide promising business alignment, agility and many other wonders. So, the participants learn the steps, but without much education about the depth involved in each step. They don’t learn how to make empirical thinking and acting a habit.

Mike Rother, who das done the best work on how to establish continual improvement as a regular practice, notes that many continual improvement implementation attempts run aground./5/ They fail because organizations try to copy the form of famous practitioners like Toyota without achieving the needed change of mindset. His research into Toyota revealed that Toyota’s success with continual improvement depends on all employees practicing P-D-C-A habits on a daily basis. Rother recognized that these “kata”, a Japanese word referring to routines that are practiced over and over again, are the very foundation of the famous Toyota way. Moreover, Toyota has worked for many decades to refine the kata and ensure that they are used everywhere in the company. And, they continue to improve them still.

Simply put, according to Rother, Toyota relies on two “katas”: an improvement kata and a coaching kata. Everyone is expected to use the improvement kata to plan, analyse and implement improvements. It follows the structure of P-D-C-A, but is more specific in the kinds of questions an employee should ask at each step. The focus remains empirical. The coaching kata is for supervisors or knowledge leaders in reinforcing the use of the improvement kata. As I don’t want here to regurgitate Rother in full, the reader is encouraged to read Rother’s work, which includes a practice guide for implementing the two katas. I would like, however, to highlight several aspects of continual improvement that strike me as essential.

Continual improvement as core competence

Continual improvement should be regarded as a core competency in any company. Without an identified approach for continual improvement—regardless of whether it follows Toyota, Deming or some other model—improvement remains ad hoc. Maybe we have a couple of geniuses who can lead us to greatness. Or, maybe we just get lucky. But, rolling dice does not sound like strategic thinking. Continual improvement should thus rank with engineering, product development or operational excellence as a capability that differentiates an organization from its competitors. Indeed, continual improvement is the “meta” core competence behind all others, as it enables improvement everywhere and at all levels.

Continual improvement as agile

At least as it is practiced at Toyota with the kata model, continual improvement is as agile as can be. Agile methods have all emphasized empirical thinking, something that should come as no surprise, since many leading agile thinkers have studied lean thinking and the Toyota Production System. In addition to being empirical, the kata model stresses small, incremental changes. Ideally, improvements happen quickly, within hours or days of their identification. The coaching meetings are short (15 min.) and regular (daily or perhaps weekly). 

So conceived, continual improvement respects and relies on the expertise in all members of the organization. Everyone is expected to identify and contribute to improvement. With the coaching kata, the typical role of a supervisor at all levels becomes one of a coach who’s first responsibility is to develop organizational capability through developing each employee’s ability to think and act empirically to improve the company. It is worth taking a moment to savor how fundamentally different this leadership role is from one that stresses managing resources and staying within budgets. 

Continual improvement is teamwork at its finest

Continual improvement, as we are talking about it here, is not solipsistic self-improvement. Rather, it is for the benefit of an organization or team and/or its customers. Thus, an improvement needs always be agreed at least at the team level. As I have stressed before, standards are nothing more than an agreement among the team (or with the customer) that we will work a certain way or meet a quality metric./6/ I emphasize the point to remove the official aura that the word standard carries. That way, we might be a bit freer in changing the standard as soon as it is no longer suitable. A team that can run through the P-D-C-A cycle within a matter of hours, bringing an improvement to fruition by testing it and agreeing it is truly agile and ready to face any challenge.


Notes

/1/ There is substantial discussion about the term “continual improvement” as opposed to “continuous improvement”. While there may be important differences, I don’t see them as relevant for embedding improvement practices and habits within an organization. Deming used the term “continual” and was clear about the discontinuous nature of individual improvements. If anyone has strong opinions about how the difference between the terms helps in a practical sense, I’d be delighted to hear about it in the comments.

/2/ Senge, Peter M. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. New York: Doubleday/Currency, 2006.

/3/ Deming himself got the idea from his mentor Walter Shewhart, who originally called it “Plan-Do-Study-Act”. Both Deming and Shewhart were scientists by training. The story about Shewhart and Deming has been rehearsed repeatedly. For a quick overview see:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PDCA. For a review of lean thinking, see https://www.teamworkblog.de/2017/04/leseempfehlungen-fur-lean-thinking.html

/4/ Mezick, Daniel, The Culture Game: Tools for the Agile Manager. (FreeStanding Press, 2012).

/5/ Rother, Mike: Toyota Kata: Managing People for Improvement, Adaptiveness and Superior Results. Madison: McGraw Hill Professional, 2009; Deutsche Ausgabe: Rother, Mike ; Kinkel, Silvia: Die Kata des Weltmarktführers : Toyotas Erfolgsmethoden. 2. Aufl.. Frankfurt am Main: Campus Verlag, 2013.

/6/ See some of my other posts in Teamworkblog: https://www.teamworkblog.de/2018/09/tough-thoughts-on-continuous-improvement.html; https://www.teamworkblog.de/2021/08/practice-makes-perfect.html; https://www.teamworkblog.de/2022/09/first-time-right-is-teamwork-at-its-best.html.


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