Continuous improvement, also known as kaizen, is arguably the most critical of the lean manufacturing principles. It lends itself to positive change for your company and employees. The concept behind continuous improvement is that changes are made and continually improved upon. Although perfection will never be achieved, the goal is to continue reaching for it through small improvements. Training and a fresh eyes approach are two of the key elements toward success. Reward programs can also be very encouraging and beneficial. Remember, nothing should be off limits.

Continuous Improvement Training

Continuous improvement (C.I.) should be a part of every person’s daily routine. All company members from the President of the company down through the ranks should constantly be looking for improvement opportunities. Whether it is a million dollar idea or a $10 idea, everyone in your company should be trained to look for improvements.

The training process does not need to be cumbersome or time consuming. It can start with the objectives of the activity and a review of some current opportunities. Identifying some of the “low hanging fruit” will give people an awareness of what to look for.

It is important to remind people of C.I. everyday until it becomes second nature. When this happens, ideas will be abundant and success in the C.I. program will be guaranteed.

Fresh Eyes Approach

A common term in a lean manufacturing or TPS environment is a “fresh eyes approach”. This is referring to the introduction of people to an area or process in which they are not familiar. By doing this, the people are not bias toward one method or another and may quickly see some improvement opportunities that the people in the area have overlooked. I have seen this process provide huge benefits for the area or company involved.

Many companies will claim they have improved upon all the “low hanging fruit” opportunities and they get stuck trying to move forward. The truth is, until you get someone else with an outside view asking why certain process are set up as they are, you may be overlooking great opportunities. Be sure to add this fresh eyes approach to your C.I. program and allow people at all levels to be involved in this activity. It may lead them to new ideas for their own areas.

Reward Programs

Rewards at work (or anywhere) have their advantages and dis-advantages. With continuous improvement programs, rewards can motivate employees to submit improvement ideas and take the program a long way.

The program should be set up to reflect what you are trying to focus on. If the current focus is safety improvements, ideas of this nature would be rewarded highly. If it’s cost savings you’re after; the bigger the payback, the bigger the reward. A $100,000 or million dollar idea has to be worth something for the originator. If a person saves the company a large sum of money and is not recognized in some way, they will eventually stop submitting ideas to the program.

Whatever the focus, make it known publicly. This will encourage people to look for ideas of that nature. Have some fun with it. Encourage your employees to submit new and creative ideas.

Nothing is Off-Limits

With continuous improvement, nothing should be off-limits. No idea is too small. No area should be untouched. No process is sacred.

Many companies will focus on certain areas and ignore others as they believe a process can not be improved or will not generate enough of a savings to make it worth while. This is a huge mistake. Leave no stone unturned. Set yearly continuous improvement targets for every department. Track their performance on a weekly and monthly basis to ensure they are meeting their departmental goals. Dive into the darkest areas of the company and shine some light on them. You never know where that next big idea will come from.