Nowadays, Continuous Improvement is a common place on any up-to-day company. However, the Continuous Improvement concept itself is overused and we often take the risk of misusing or to confound its meaning.
Generally speaking, Continuous Improvement refers to the regular optimization of work processes and methods, sustained along the time, imbricated in the company’s culture, maintained and supported throughout all the levels in the company.
The real Continuous Improvement is a habit which is part of the systematic day-to-day in the company and is actively promoted and encouraged within all the hierarchical levels in the in the organization.
The reality is that Continuous Improvement, technically, will never be uniform along the time. There will be periods of slight improvement, another ones with a marked and appreciable improvement, and moments with radical, fast and evident improvement. There will even be moments in which we will not obtain such improvement, though we will cover this a bit later.
In a Lean Manufacturing environments, two types of improvements are differentiated, within the Continuous Improvement:
- Kaizen: is the gradual, sustained and evolutive improvement. It focuses on evolutive improvements.
- Kaikaku: is the radical and revolutionary improvement. It focuses on radical improvements.
In fact, in the Anglo-Saxon nomenclature, the Kaikaku events are also known as Kaizen Blitz Events, for its quick speed and for the evident effects that they produce.
However, both of them, Kaizen and Kaikaku, are Continuous Improvement. They are two complementary tools that help us to progress towards the same objective. And we have to choose the right tool depending on the moment.
For these reasons our Continuous Improvement graph takes the shape of a broken line presenting sections with a smooth slope, sections with an evident slope and sections with abrupt discontinuities.
What we will pursue, with lots of efforts, is a positive slope in all those sections. It is noteworthy, however, that no matter how hard we try and prepare a Kaikaku event, the implementation of the associated changes will present the phases shown in the figure below. Although relatively short in time, we have to consider them with adequate care, especially those immediately after the changes since those usually produce disturbances.
Having said all this, one thing is the implementation phases of each improvement and another thing is how the organization faces the improvement process. In other words: How do we address the improvement processes and suggestions for improvement? Which are the specific systems that we have to manage the Continuous Improvement? How do we promote, foster, encourage and sustain the Continuous Improvement? And here is where the word “Continue” makes sense. As Fernando Gastón writes in “La famosa mejora continua en realidad no es continua”, Improsofia, it is good and necessary to be a little more ambitious: “Cannot we aspire to the following? That any idea for improvement would be immediately treated by the involved parts of the organization and immediately implemented, if feasible”. I fully agree in this point.
However, as Gabriel Ginebra states in his book “El japonés que estrelló el tren para ganar tiempo”: “Even though we can do lots of things, we will never be able to do all of them at once, nor all of them well”.
According to my experience, it is not credible to expect a regular, constant and uniform Continuous Improvement. But, as Fernando, I am a strong advocate of the fact that we should aim more. We have to actively seek a positive trend, a real Continuous Improvement. And it should be part of our systematic routine, of the day-to-day business. Although being aware that, as Gabriel says, we will not always succeed, and learning from it.