Illustration of a continuous improvement process.
July 14, 2020

What Your Continuous Improvement Process Needs

Project Management

What Is Continuous Improvement?

Continuous improvement is a mindset.

What Is a Continuous Improvement Process?

The continuous improvement process is the structured approach to this mindset. It involves systematically enhancing workflows, services, and products over time as an organization.

Businesses that incorporate a continuous improvement process into their culture and work practices survive and thrive.

The Evolution of Continuous Improvement

The concept to continuously improve is as old as mankind. It’s a natural part of our curious and problem-solving nature. Ever since the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “Change is the only constant in life,” it has been repeated by many.

However, the more structured approach by businesses to treat continuous improvement as a process has its roots in manufacturing. As a result of its success, continuous improvement as a process now extends into all other industries, including software development.

No matter the industry, the benefits of accepting constant change and improvement are clear. But it is something that needs to be done and not said. There are many examples of businesses talking about a continuous improvement process, but then not being able to execute on the idea. These organizations fail to adapt to changing market conditions and competitors changing faster.

Why Businesses Need a Continuous Improvement Process

At the core of any continuous improvement process is the ability to retrospect. You need to look at the decisions that have been made in the past and evaluate how to improve in the future. Businesses do this for three reasons:

  •  To improve the quality of their products or services: This is often associated with the Toyota Production System. By relentlessly looking to improve, you get much closer to a perfect product or service in terms of quality.
  •  To adapt to changing market conditions: Regulations, technologies, behaviors, and competition are always in flux. Today these conditions are changing even faster. This offers both opportunities and challenges. Being able to use such changes to your advantage means you are more likely to survive and thrive in the long game.
  • To increase margins: Businesses where there is a constant price pressure are looking at new ways to get things done. By re-inventing how work is completed, organizations gain insight into how they can compete by improving the overall margin of the business.

There are a lot of continuous improvement models that you can choose to accomplish these goals. Let’s review two.

Kaizen Continuous Improvement Model

Kaizen is a Japanese word meaning improvement. Although improvement is the goal, this method really focuses on waste elimination.

Kaizen started in manufacturing. Companies wanted a way to build products without any materials leftover. Everyone from the CEO to the front-line worker was tasked with evaluating the production cycle. The CEOs were able to see the impact of inefficiencies. But the people doing the work could more easily identify the underlying issues.

This continuous improvement model has been adapted over the years for other industries. The most important part is to get all employees involved. It helps create a company culture around looking for ways to improve. In industries where you are more likely to be distributed, for example in software development, your tools need to bring everyone together.

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Six Sigma

Six Sigma offers a different approach to continuous improvement. Instead of focusing on eliminating waste at every level, it wants to establish a standard process across teams.

This continuous improvement method looks to remove deviation. Then teams can disperse these ideas throughout an organization using roles (six of them actually). Each stage is well controlled and documented. Because one of the most important elements of Six Sigma is to evaluate. Teams need to create measurable change. For example, how much faster did you release a product? How many bugs needed to be fixed after the release? 

Although Six Sigma is used in software, often the highly structured nature isn’t great for large companies with diverse projects and teams. Focus on doing this at a team level to establish a process.

How to Implement a Continuous Improvement Process

A top-down approach to a continuous improvement process is not always the best method. Actually, improving working practices often emerge on team level. It is then encouraged and supported by the leadership team.

The goal should be to make continuous improvement part of your everyday culture. Use our continuous improvement checklist to review your strategy.

Continuous Improvement Checklist

  • Focus on value delivery: The first step in any analysis or retrospective is to start with the why question. Why are we doing this activity at all? What value does it provide? What issues does it cause?
  • Take one step at a time: If you have not systematically looked at what you do before, it is likely that you will find a long list of things to improve. Do not start a revolution and do it all at once. Address them one by one, starting with smaller steps to gain quick wins.
  • Empower people throughout the process: Your employees have first-hand knowledge about the work they have done and what they want to do. The closer people are to the activities you are reviewing, the more they need to be involved. Allow them to be part of making and executing a plan.
  • Gain 360° visibility: Often when we think of gaining visibility into a project or team, we think of looking at what they are doing now and in the future. But retrospectives should also be part of your continuous improvement process. Ensure you have a tool that gives you visibility into your entire development cycle.
  • Measure (and repeat) the results: It is important to track your progress. As there is no end station to continuous improvement, visualize the velocity and progress rather than setting goals. Use project management tools to help show how processes are performing better or where quality has improved.

Your Tools for Continuous Improvement

You need to move quickly to stay competitive. And the reality is for many teams, they may use a mix of development methods. When it comes to continuous improvement, they may need to combine models. Some prefer lean practices such as Kanban, while other more iterative ones, such as Scrum. For a lot of teams, they may want a combination of the two.

Having the right tools allows you to cherry pick what works for your team—and adapt over time.

Hansoft — the Agile project management tool from Perforce — allows you to do just that. You can maximize productivity by quickly adapting your methods. Hansoft offers a variety of tools, like Kanban and Gnatt charts, so you can experiment. Mix-and-match processes to find your ideal solution.

Plus, with one unifying backlog, everyone on your team can see what is being worked on. Leaders can quickly view and share dashboards to track results over time.

Start on your path to continuously improve with Hansoft.

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