6 Keys To Improvement – Part I

“Improvement” is one of the 7 (now modified) quality principles outlined within ISO 9001:2015, and is a fundamental component of any management system.  We often see organizations making a commendable effort to improve processes, procedures, products, etc.  Unfortunately, we also see some companies that are paralyzed by the process.  The intent and effort is there, but while searching for a perfect solution they miss many opportunities for incremental improvements.

Continual Improvement Cartoon - In ArticleDo you recall the “Leaping Frog” problem from grade school math?  A frog starts in the centre of a pond and tries to hop out, but each leap covers just half the remaining distance to the edge of the pond.  Will the frog ever reach land?  The answer, of course, is “no”.  Although in time he will come frustratingly close, he will always leap just half the distance and will never reach his goal (unless we use university math, which I long ago swore not to revisit).

In the quality business, we work on a similar principle, but with a strikingly more optimistic outlook.  Though our poor amphibian friend has an absolute objective (the shore or bust!), in quality we set improvement as our goal and understand the value of taking incremental steps forward.

An effective improvement process does require some structure, but when it comes to the goal of having a positive impact on your business, our Nike-like message is to “just do it”.

We’ve identified 6 key elements that you can use to help shape your improvement strategy.  In this issue, we’ll look at the first 3…

1.  Understand “Continuous” vs. “Continual”

In previous editions of the ISO 9001 standard, the operative term was “continual improvement”, and for many years we have encouraged organizations to note the difference between the concepts of “continual” and “continuous”. These terms are often used interchangeably without harm, but there is a subtle difference in meaning that can help to illustrate the point.  Continuous is defined as “uninterrupted in time”, while continual means “of regular or frequent recurrence” – one long, ongoing effort vs. many independent actions.

The effort to improve should be continuous, but when it comes to actions supporting our QMS, we should be continually doing things (big and small) to make improvements.

Make sure that your approach/process/procedure is focused on doing things.  It’s great to have systems, plans and elaborate procedures that are “continuously” in use, but real improvement comes through “continual” action and the repeated implementation of good ideas.

2.  Set Goals (Objectives) and Take Steps

Of course, in Quality Management we are also quite big on setting goals and objectives.  A Health & Safety target of zero lost time incidents in a calendar year may or may not be practical or reachable (depending on the organization), but certainly there is value in setting it and striving to reach it.  It is important to remember that there is no silver bullet solution that will attain the objective.  Searching for a grand solution may very well distract you from implementing smaller improvements, each imperfect on its own but still of value and an important part of the long-term effort.

3.  Avoid Perfectionism as a Hindering Behaviour

While setting an objective of perfection is good practice, we must be on guard against perfectionism in the implementation of solutions.  Perfectionism in its positive form motivates us to continually raise our standards and strive to improve both ourselves and our organization.  Perfectionism in a negative form includes the belief that any work or output that is less than perfect is unacceptable, and often leads to the dismissal of very good ideas and solutions…on the grounds that they are not perfect.

Here are some signs to help you identify unhealthy perfectionism within your organization or QMS:

  • Goals are set at unrealistic levels. If a proposed plan can not reach these unattainable goals it is dismissed, often leading to unrealistic plans that are doomed to fail.
  • Mistakes are viewed as failures, and are often concealed for fear of punishment or embarrassment.
  • There is no recognition or celebration of achievement unless it reaches the organization’s definition of perfection.
  • Risks are not taken when there is no guarantee that the task can be executed perfectly.  Instead, there is a preference for safer courses of action because of a greater likelihood of achieving the stated goals.
  • There is little focus on the process of learning and working; only the result matters.
  • Discussions often exhibit all-or-nothing thinking: either something is perfect, or it’s a failure.
  • There is a real reluctance to delegate tasks down the management chain for fear that they will not be handled to certain standards.

In Part 2 (coming soon!) we’ll share more suggestions and strategies to help with improvement.

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