Continuous Improvement as a Business Enabler

Mary Marasco, Senior Process Architect

January 20, 2019

“Continuous Improvement” is one of those terms which describes itself.  Many organization’s hire consultants to help them improve their business processes and organizational performance in a continuous manner as the business environment around them changes. Just to elaborate, continuous improvement is a philosophy, practice, and method pertaining to the ongoing effort to streamline work and reduce waste in order to improve products, services, and business processes. By definition, continuous improvement is about improving an organization’s performance in terms of its operational efficiencies and organizational effectiveness.

There are various Continuous Improvement methods which can be employed such as Lean, Six Sigma, Kaizen, or Total Quality Management.  These are some of the more important ones used by Continuous Improvement professionals. Furthermore, most Continuous Improvement programs in organizations use one or a combination of these methods.  For the purpose of this article, we won’t explain each of these approaches but rather focus on the reasons for adopting a Continuous Improvement practice in your organization.  It is important to understand that organizations use international quality standards such as ISO (International Organization for Standardization) or Six Sigma in order to coordinate across an entire supply chain, but the underlying principle is that the quality of every product, process, or service can be defined and measured.

Building a Continuous Improvement practice and growing Continuous Improvement capabilities is critical in today’s competitive business landscape. Irrespective of what industry your business is in or who your competitors are, the key objective of Continuous Improvement is to deliver products and services that the customer is seeking and attaches value. Customers, whether internal or external, demand value and improvements that meet a standard of quality for the products and services they receive. 

In order to gain commitment and develop a formal practice for Continuous Improvement within an organization, support from executive management is required to solicit buy-in from the organization and gain commitment to the process.  Continuous Improvement is based on a long-term view and the support of all levels of management to actively drive the Continuous Improvement effort. The tools, training, resource allocation, governance and management, and formal procedures to deliver Continuous Improvement projects to realize business benefits must be in place for successful adoption.

Many companies do not have the appropriate organizational support and structure to build their Continuous Improvement capabilities. At the very core of any improvement initiative, raising capabilities requires a systematic approach to defining the Continuous Improvement practice and service offering, establishing the demand management function, and the Continuous Improvement delivery processes to realize improvement benefits and growing these CI capabilities within the organization by engaging skilled resources, training staff members, and providing practitioners with opportunities for experiential learning.

Any company, organizational unit, or department can implement a Continuous Improvement practice by following four basic steps: 1) Define the Continuous Improvement service offering; 2) Design a mechanism to capture improvement ideas for evaluation and selection; 3) Implement a Continuous Improvement delivery methodology and governance to ensure business benefits are realized and 4) Build Continuous Improvement capabilities and mindset to develop a Continuous Improvement culture.

These four steps provide the fundamental building blocks of any Continuous Improvement practice.  In terms defining the Continuous Improvement Service Offering, the organization provides the appropriate service  level and oversight  based on key criteria such as magnitude and complexity of the problem, business needs, risk, strategic importance and visibility to the organization.  No two improvement initiatives are the same and as such allocation of scarce resources must be managed accordingly. This is why we advocate a tiered service offering where Continuous Improvement projects are assigned a service level which describes the resource commitment and project rigor needed to manage the initiative.  For example, smaller projects are provided guidance and tools to run small improvement efforts, medium projects are offered facilitation services, tools and oversight to ensure project success; while the largest projects are assigned full time key Continuous Improvement resources and follow a rigorous project delivery methodology to support its Continuous Improvement efforts.

Once your organization determines how the services will be provided to improvement teams, the focus should then turn to managing all the potential opportunities for improvement. Demand Management is the formal process by which submissions for improvement projects across the organization are captured, evaluated, selected and prioritized. In order to objectively quantify, rank, and prioritize the opportunity against all other opportunities, consideration must be given to the evaluation measures applied to objectively assess the business benefits anticipated against the risk and effort to undertake the project. A demand management and governance process ensures the right projects are selected to deliver the most benefit to the organization.

Once projects are selected, a project delivery and governance framework will further ensure projects have the needed oversight to stay on track and deliver the intended benefits to the business. Irrespective of the size of the project, all projects should follow a consistent project execution and delivery process. The level of project discipline and rigor to apply depends on the size, risk, and cost to execute the project, so consideration for each project must be given on what the project is expected to deliver at each phase of the project. Having project oversight via regular reviews ensures the appropriate oversight by business stakeholders, improves communication, and increases transparency and stakeholder satisfaction.

The last and most important step is building Continuous Improvement capabilities and mindset.  Building Continuous Improvement Capabilities requires commitment to competency development through formal and informal training and opportunities for experiential learning with hands-on application of the problem-solving tools and methods. Providing opportunities to apply skills to small improvement efforts, builds the Continuous Improvement skills of individuals and encourages them to apply problems-solving techniques and tools in their everyday work. This builds the organizations capabilities and capacity to deliver more improvements with the same resources.  As success grows, mindset changes with it.

Although organizations may engage in major improvement projects, a Continuous Improvement mindset means that the organization is always looking for even very small opportunities for improvement, and acting on those opportunities accordingly. Seeking ways to improve products, processes or services, even when things are going well, an important aspect of the Continuous Improvement mindset where organizations are always looking to become more efficient and effective.

Ms. Mary Marasco is a Senior Business Architect affiliated with IT Architects in Calgary, Alberta, and specializes in Continuous Improvement, Business Process Design, Supply Chain Management Optimization, and Business Architecture.  IT Architects ( is an information consulting firm specializing in business process optimization, system evolution planning, and the deployment of leading-edge technologies. If you require further information, Mary can be reached at [email protected] or 403-689-7858.

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