Providing Structure to Continuous Process Improvement Implementation

Look at any company and you’ll see it making improvement efforts in its business. These improvements could be in worker productivity, plant efficiency, quality, service (i.e., on time delivery), etc.

Often, however, companies don’t get it right.

Improvements aren’t structured. Individual departments carry out improvements without getting other departments involved. This "siloed," unstructured approach to making improvements is one of the main reasons why companies fail to achieve the next level in performance.

So how can we take a company to the next level, which would require achieving true continuous process improvement? We would first need to thoroughly understand the whole system of our company. To get it right, we have to take the time get it right.

Now some of you would say, "We don’t have the time to sit and understand the whole system while we are putting out fires every hour, every day. We need quick results; management needs quick results." But the fact is if we want our company’s continuous process improvements to stick or be sustained, it’s critical that we comprehend the interconnectedness of individual functions, machines, people — the whole system.

I know it’s very difficult to understand a system in a short time. However, improvements done in isolation may backfire and result in having to call on a new firefighting team to address the failed improvement.

Take the Time

Yes, I agree we don’t have the time, and some problems do need to be solved immediately. I’m not saying that if someone is bleeding profusely you should wait to do a complete analysis of the injury before coming to the person’s aid. We first need to place a bandage on the wound to stop the bleeding, a "just do it" type of action that some Lean Six Sigma practitioners would classically call a "quick fix" or "quick hit." Then we have to analyze why, how, and when the person was bleeding, as well as examine how to prevent this bleeding from happening again.

But 95 percent of the time, as soon as the bleeding stops, we move on to the next problem. We fail to understand and address the root cause of the issue until it returns. Sometimes the problem does not reappear, which may lead the company’s firefighters to think their quick fix has worked. What they don’t realize, however, is that this quick fix has only become the source of some other problem, and a company may fail to recognize the connection between the two. (We could do an in-depth analysis to look for this correlation, but who has the time to do it, right? We only have 24 hours in a day!)

Looking at Structured Continuous Process Improvement Methodologies

So how can we begin to structure our implementation of continuous process improvement methodologies within our organizations? There are several ways, which I list below.

Value Stream Mapping

In value stream mapping we:

  • Map the high level "as is" current state map for the company’s "system;"
  • Develop the "future state" map;
  • Identify bottlenecks (gaps and problems areas) in our system;
  • Prioritize the problems using business Y’s by employing various techniques such as the cause and effect diagram and control-impact matrix;
  • Assign prioritized continuous process improvement projects to Green Belts, Black Belts, and Master Black Belts to monitor the progress of projects using some type of reviews, like toll gates or management reviews;
  • Complete the projects;
  • Update the future state value stream map, which becomes the current state;
  • Track the sustainability of project solutions;
  • And continue the cycle of continuous process improvement.

The above approach needs to be followed with strict discipline. Time and resources have to be invested initially in developing the current state value stream map of the products or services. Various types and forms of data (which are at least 80 to 90 percent reliable) such as downtime, batch size, inventory (i.e., WIP, finished products, raw materials), lead times, cycle times, etc. need to be collected to put into value stream maps.

Six Sigma DMAIC

Problems that have existed for quite some time (and have not been solved for quite some time) need a structured approach such as Six Sigma DMAIC. The Six Sigma methodology may seem to create more work initially in terms of collecting data that is not readily available and calculating baseline charts and numbers (i.e., Cp, Pp, Cpk, Ppk, and DPMO). But people who implement this methodology for the first time must understand that without conducting this baseline analysis, projects will not yield significant benefits.

Baseline capability analysis helps project leaders and teams understand the current state; identify and differentiate between special cause and common cause variation; understand how good or bad the process is in terms of defects (i.e., rejects, scrap, and rework) it produces; understand the current capability of the process in terms of meeting the customer specifications; etc.

Lean Methodology

Another such structured approach is the Lean methodology, which is relatively well understood by employees, as it does not involve statistics and statistical charts. For this reason, companies tend to adopt the Lean approach to problem solving. But even Lean forces us to use "Systems Thinking." The main concept that Lean teaches us, according to Taiichi Ohno, is that we must work to shrink the timeline between customer orders to delivery (and hence cash conversion). Lean calculations such as Takt time, lead time (using Little’s law), kanban size, and pitch require understanding the complete end-to-end system of the company. The Lean methodology improves the "flow" of information, materials and people based on customer demand.

Organizational Structures

The structure of the organization also plays a vital role in implementing continuous process improvement. The functional organization is the most common structure found in manufacturing organizations. Even though much has been written about the disadvantages of the functional structure, many companies still structure themselves in this way, which creates major roadblocks in achieving continuous process improvement.

In contrast, some companies have been able to benefit by structuring themselves as value stream organizations. In this structure, the value stream manager is responsible for the entire stream of the product or service. To manage the value stream efficiently and effectively, the manager must have the knowledge, competency and experience in such areas as engineering, supply chain, production, and maintenance. This type of organizational structure hence helps to avoid inter-departmental conflicts by improving the transparency of information across functions.


In conclusion, implementing a continuous process improvement system in a company should be done in a systematic and structured manner with a lot of careful planning and brainstorming between cross-functional leaders. Continuous process improvement experts can be brought in to facilitate this transformation. By veering away from unstructured, ad-hoc improvements to gain short-term savings, companies can avoid failed improvement efforts, waste of resources and time, and employee frustration.

However, we should not overlook the ease of solving certain problems, as these quick hits may help to get early buy-in for continuous process improvement from top management. Quick hits can be categorized separately from more extensive problems. Project leaders will need to make sure that these quick hits do not impact anything else negatively in the business upon implementation. The urge to make every project a quick hit must be held back.