Increasingly, companies are recognizing the value a continuous improvement manager can deliver.
This is symptomatic of a shift towards prioritizing quality in every sector. Firms have identified that high standards are essential to their value-proposition. There is greater emphasis on this approach as markets become increasingly customer-centric; that is, the major product differentiator is customer service. However, the business landscape is becoming increasingly competitive – which drives the imperative to deploy aggressive pricing strategies. As competition intensifies, enterprises also need to streamline their operations and mitigate risk in order to protect their bottomline. Consequently, this produces a perpetual process of refinement, where staff need to identifying opportunities, reducing costs, and eradicating suboptimal processes.
However, constant improvement is an elusive process where the goal posts are always moving. In response, many businesses have sought to adapt their corporate culture to integrate the principles of continuous improvement and a ‘self-reinforcing’ way of working. Essentially, ‘self-reinforcing’ describes a process where achievements inform and develop working practices, as opposed to an environment where corporate goals are merely a list of tasks. This approach has cross-functional benefits – for instance, the process will ameliorate the overall quality of a company's product or service, thus supporting the credibility of the organization’s marketing efforts.
Nevertheless, this process is easier to describe than it is to deliver. Continuous improvement is a cross-department, perpetual, and complex task that requires strategic planning and close collaboration. In response, many major firms are hiring continuous improvement managers. In this article, we explore the value of these individuals and how they support a dynamic company culture.
Core competencies of a continuous improvement manager
The majority of continuous improvement managers have a background in business management, engineering, data science, or logistically. Generally, a continuous improvement manager will have the following core competencies:
- High level project management capabilities, including exceptional multi-tasking capabilities.
- Excellent organizational and analytical skills.
- Knowledge of relevant business improvement techniques such as lean management principles and Six Sigma, alongside the ability to implement them.
- Experience within the company’s sector in both a technical and legal capacity, ensuring changes are sound and effective.
- Exceptional communication skills and an ability to deploy soft power, as the continuous improvement manager will have to work closely with a wide variety of personalities and profiles.
- The ability to solve problems and be accountable for decisions.
Principle tasks of a continuous improvement manager
The primary function of a continuous improvement manager is to develop a strategic continuous improvement plan, that is, a framework which will deliver ongoing improvement across the corporate structure. In essence, this plan will seek to enhance products, services, and processes through continual review, evaluation, and implementation. Often, the continuous improvement manager will look to gain results applicable to major quality methodologies, such as Six Sigma, ISO, or the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program.
To meet these goals, the continuous improvement manager will usually use one of the following two frameworks: The Shewhart Cycle – which is also known as PDCA – or a Japanese technique called Kaizen. The following section outlines these processes.
The Shewhart Cycle
The Shewhart Cycle or PDCA (plan, do, check, act) works off the assertion that continuous improvement is a cyclical process. The process was popularized by W. Edwards Deming, who is considered to be the father of modern quality control. Essentially, the Shewhart cycle uses iteration as a fundamental principle – that is, once a hypothesis is confirmed or negated, running the cycle repeatedly will extend knowledge further. The framework comprises four steps:
- Plan, where a working group will identify an opportunity and devise an appropriate plan of action.
- Do, where the team implements the plan on a small scale to observe and evaluate results with ease.
- Check, where the continuous improvement manager will assess and report on the test’s findings.
- Act, if the test is successful, the team will action the change on a larger scale and continuously monitor its effects. If the test fails, the process repeats.
Kaizen derives from the Japanese kai meaning ‘change’ and zen which means ‘good’. Overall, the process promotes qualitative improvement, cost reduction, streamlining, efficiency, and enhanced customer satisfaction through incremental improvement. This approach considers gradual, phased improvement to be preferable over rapid change as it facilitates sustainable development. Not only is incremental change easier to manage, but it is also likely to be more cost-effective. This is because small adjustments to working practices often come from the existing workforce, they rarely require large investments.
As a result, Kaizen is an approach that promotes a self-reinforcing approach to operations. The framework encourages employees to take responsibility for their performance, thus promoting greater motivation. These characteristics made the Kaizen model an essential part of the Toyota Production System, the precursor to modern lean management. Unsurprisingly, many continuous improvement managers seek to nurture a culture of sustainable change through lean management principles.
Driving improvement long-term
Once the continuous improvement manager has selected their preferred framework, their task will be to drive improvement and streamlining throughout the corporate structure. This will entail implementing the continuous improvement program over the long-term, measuring and prototyping procedures to improve production efficiency. Furthermore, they may also seek to implement new metrics for measuring efficiency, as well as facilitating new business processes across divisions. From here, the continuous improvement needs to ensure they thoroughly communicate their approach to all relevant employees and stakeholders.
The perpetual challenges of continuous improvement
Whilst the benefits of continuous improvement is widely acknowledged across sectors, the challenges associated with adopting and implementing the approach cannot be underestimated. Therefore, the significance of the continuous improvement manager’s role cannot be overstated; without their strategic planning and support, it is likely that a company will fall short of their targets. The continuous improvement manager will not only transform company culture, but also ensure that this is understood as a never-ending process. Through actively managing corporate transformation, continuous improvement managers can identify, isolate, reduce, and eliminate suboptimal systems, resulting in a higher quality product. As such, continuous improvement managers have become the lynchpin of a thriving corporate culture.