The definition of process improvement seems self-evident, but it’s more complex in theory – and challenging in practice – than you might realize. The term refers to the task of identifying opportunities for improvement, implementing changes, and, ideally, measuring the impact of those changes.
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Without a structured, continuous approach to process improvement, it’s difficult to keep momentum moving. It’s also far too easy for busy, overworked teams to become desensitized to process inefficiencies and allow bad habits to fester and affect the quality of their work and speed of their delivery. Continuous improvement (also called Kaizen) is a Lean process improvement methodology that provides the disciplined approach teams need to keep improvement as their top priority.
Key Concepts of Continuous (Lean Process) Improvement
Lean process improvement is a mindset, not an event
Perhaps the biggest differentiator between the generic term “process improvement” and the Lean process improvement methodology is that Lean process improvement is a mindset and a practice, not an event.
Many organizations view process improvement as a temporary event or activity used to solve giant systematic gaps.
Lean organizations view continuous improvement as a daily mindset and practice – the means by which organizations are able to deliver on their promises to their customers.
It’s most effective when practiced across the organization
In order for Lean process improvement efforts to be effective, every part of the organization needs to be available for and willing to change.
If not, organizations run the risk of having teams that by optimizing their own performance, sub-optimize the performance of another team, and therefore, the performance of the organization as a whole.
If, for example, a marketing team’s improvement efforts lead them to refuse any non-marketing requests so that they can focus on delivering their campaigns, they run the risk of creating campaigns that don’t accurately reflect the latest version of the product, or that don’t align with the messaging sales is using when speaking to potential customers. This creates a strategic discord that can be felt by the customer. Practicing continuous improvement on a figurative island makes it difficult to practice the Lean principle of optimize the whole.
It helps you maximize value and deliver faster
The goal of Lean process improvement is to enable teams to systematically find ways to deliver more value to their customers faster. It does this by providing a systematic, scientific approach to practicing continuous improvement as a part of daily work. This approach can be summarized by this diagram of the continuous improvement cycle:
Lean Process Improvement Techniques
The continuous improvement cycle explains the Lean process improvement mindset, but it doesn’t provide an actionable plan for how to manage and measure improvement efforts alongside regular work. That’s where two tools, Kanban and WIP limits, come in handy.
In order to improve your process, it’s critical that you fully understand it. Kanban is a visual process workflow tool that enables individuals, teams, and organizations to manage work through a shared understanding of process.
Kanban can help teams identify opportunities for process improvement. As teams use Kanban boards to manage their work, they automatically generate data they can use to assess the impact of their continuous improvement efforts.
Implementing work-in-process (or WIP) limits for yourself and your team is another great Lean process improvement technique. WIP limits are fixed constraints teams place on themselves in order to improve throughput and minimize context switching. This helps them deliver higher quality work faster.
Kanban boards make it easy to track WIP limits, by simply counting how many cards are in the “in-process” lanes in your workflow. You can set WIP limits for specific lanes in Kanban board software, so that you are alerted when you reach your WIP limit. If you wish to exceed the WIP limit, you have to manually override it (ideally, only for specific exceptions decided by your team).
Implementing WIP limits can help teams focus on improving how they prioritize and collaborate on work. This encourages everyone to discuss work priority, status, and opportunities for pair programming as a team, and keep improvement top of mind.