How to Continuously Improve Your Business Systems

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Continuous improvement is a catchphrase of the quality movement and it is often accompanied with a “yeah, so what” attitude. Not knowing exactly what it is or how to implement it generally means that most business owners don’t do anything practical about it, making changes to their systems and processes in response to triggers such as unexpected errors, high returns or warranty claims, variation from accepted processes, changes in materials, standards or production methods, and so on.

There’s a better way. 

The six steps below apply equally to those businesses which have robust systems and processes in place and to those businesses which are beginning their systems journey.

  1. Identify Areas for Improvement
  2. Define Specific Improvement Goals
  3. Develop a Plan of Action
  4. Implement the Plan
  5. Monitor Systems Performance
  6. Communicate with all Stakeholders

Step One – Identify Areas for Improvement

If your business already has systems in place and you have created an audit schedule or review cycle for each process, identifying areas for improvement will mean checking your schedule and reviewing processes in the order they are listed. In addition to this regular, scheduled review, you would respond to other triggers such as:

  • customer feedback
  • performance metrics (eg. Process KPIs or warranty/returns data)
  • feedback from internal audits

If you don’t yet have systems in place, your strategies for ongoing improvement in business operations will start with start with an assessment of:

  • customer feedback
  • performance (assessed informally through observation and team feedback)
  • gut feel – yes, this can be a valid indicator of the need for improvement

Step Two – Define Specific Improvement Goals

As with most change efforts, you are more likely to achieve the desired result if you can clearly define it with a clear, unambiguous goal. Each goal should of course be measurable, attainable, relevant, and time bound (SMART), using the parameters of Time, Cost and Quality. Most importantly, each improvement goal should respond to the specific issue identified in step one.

For some businesses, the improvement goal may rely on an external standard which your business must comply with. Be sure to include the standards, codes or other compliance measures when defining the goal for such improvement efforts.

Some examples:

Issue/Area for Improvement Goal
Customer complaints that products are being delivered without advance notice – the customer is not able to plan installation with any certainty. Dispatch: Implement steps to identify all installable products and notify customers prior to dispatch of delivery date and 4hr time range. Measure of success: Nil customer complaints on this issue achieved by (date).
Recall rates for our (dental practice) patients has fallen from 65% to 30% Achieve a minimum of 65% recalls for patients by (date)

While this article focuses on the continuous improvement of systems, it is critical to note that improving systems without providing related training and support will rarely achieve the improvement goal you set. 

Step Three – Develop a Plan of Action

With a clear understanding of the improvement goals for each area of improvement, it’s now time to plan the steps required to achieve these goals. Time set aside to complete the plan must make allowance for usual daily tasks and operations. The plan must state:

  • Improvement goal
  • Time (duration) and timeline
  • Resources (internal and external) – people, venue, equipment, etc.
  • Roles and responsibilities
  • Test plan – what we will do to assess the success of the plan against the goal

To be realistic, the plan must take note of usual work schedules, planned leave and availability of any external resources involved. Once the plan has been drafted it will need to be reviewed and accepted by all involved with confirmation that it is in everyone’s diary.

Step Four – Implement the Plan

With a plan in place and accepted by all participants it is now a matter of implementing the plan. Like all plans, it will need to be monitored, and support provided as necessary to keep everything moving and  to respond to any issues that may arise. If there is a systems champion in the business, monitoring will be part of their role. If there is no systems champion, it will be up to the relevant manager or a nominated team member to monitor progress and provide support.

If the plan extends across multiple sessions, be sure to touch base with the participants regularly to maintain focus, acknowledge progress and provide support.

Implementing the plan means using the Test Plan to review the expected outcome of the changes made, to confirm that the systems improvement goal will actually be achieved. Again, assess this against the SMART goal set in step two.

If training or familiarisation is part of the implementation plan be sure to allow time to complete this and, if required, test competency. Familiarisation in this case may refer to people who are not directly impacted by the changes made, but who would benefit from an overview of the changes made, such as members of the sales or marketing team.

Similarly, changes to documentation need time to be implemented.

Lastly, if your business uses an internal audit schedule or review cycle to guide continuous improvement, update the schedule or the systems review cycle to make sure that your changes will be assessed based on the new risk and complexity rating of the changes implemented.

Step Five – Monitor Systems Performance

For some minor changes, monitoring systems performance may not require any particular attention, being covered by the internal audit schedule. However, for any significant change, it will always be advised to monitor both ongoing systems performance and more specifically, the cause or issue that triggered the improvement in the first place.

If the change involved training be sure to monitor team performance carefully to confirm that there is no slipping back to ‘the old ways.’

Importantly, be sure to acknowledge the effort and dedication of those who were involved in the improvement effort. Provided this is done consistently with all changes, it can be a significant motivating factor in building ownership and accountability within your team.

Step Six – Communicate with all Stakeholders

Where the changes are likely to be visible to your customers, consider providing information and guidance on the changes, highlighting the benefits to your customers as well as emphasising your business focus on continuing improvement.

Since communication is two way, invite stakeholders (internal and external) to give feedback on the changes from their perspectives.

Step Six completed? Great! That means you’re ready for Step One – Identify Areas for Improvement. It’s the ‘continuous’ word in the title, continuous improvement in business processes. 

Now that you can see the six steps that will help you continuously improve your business systems, it’s worthwhile considering why business owners, and maybe you, don’t manage it well, if at all.

The most common reason we hear is that it’s all too complicated, or words to that effect. It’s only for big corporates, not for my business. Our response to this is to suggest that you start with your core processes, the ones we refer to as the ‘business backbone’ – starting with a sales order, working through delivery of your product or service, and ending with payment. Every process in this stream is critical to your business success. How about starting there? You’re bound to find ways to improve business systems consistently – every improvement you make is a bonus if you’re not doing anything now.

If you are looking for more tips for implementing continuous improvement in your business, please feel free to browse our website at your leisure. If you are ready to embark on your own continuous improvement programme and would appreciate some professional assistance, call or message us now to discuss your plans with one of our experts.

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