“If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got.” Goes the saying, whether attributed to self-help guru Tony Robbins, or motor manufacturing maestro Henry Ford – the sentiment remains strong. But in today’s business world, we’d hypothesise that unless you’re improving, you’re going backwards. A static, unchanging business is leaving itself open to shifting customer requirements or making it easier for competitors to gain meaningful differentiation.
So what’s the solution to this?
Many successful companies have embedded continuous improvement into their businesses as a strategic pillar, not a one-time re-imagining of the business that drives success over the long term. Very few companies could cite a single epiphanic transformational moment as the seed of their success. Far more would reference the ongoing grind of those small, incremental percentages that make the difference over the long term.
Let’s explore what continuous improvement looks like in practice, and how to apply the concept in your business using technology.
The PDCA Cycle
Continuous improvement as a concept has an incredible number of theories and methodologies, but the basic idea and principle are surmised as Plan, Do, Check, Acknowledge & Act.
- Plan – find the problems, prepare a plan.
- Do – put in place your plan, test different plans.
- Check – analyse and evaluate your progress against your targets set in the planning phase.
- Act – when you’ve identified the best solution, implement this and begin Planning once more.
The theory of continual improvement assumes there is no perfect solution, hence the infinite loop of smaller incremental changes across time.
Some of the origins of the popular thinking of continuous improvement were borne out of lean manufacturing techniques, shaving off costs on components and saving labour budgets through changing working practices and investing in technology to streamline processes.
However, the concept applies to any business and using this approach can drive productivity and success regardless of the industry.
How do you get started?
Continuous improvement is both a philosophy and a method, so considering it as just one of these two distinctly different approaches could impact the success of the programme.
From the philosophical point of view, the culture of the company must embrace a growth mindset and become a learning organisation. This means at all levels of the hierarchy, employees should be willing to change and actively encouraged to try new things. This is easier said than done as many businesses are conservative, risk-averse and can be punitive in their handling of difficult situations that demand progressive solutions.
From a methodological standpoint, we’ve seen many of our clients succeed in implementing continuous improvement in their supply chain by embracing the power of data and technology.
If we were to map the PDCA cycle to the influence of technology on continuous improvement, there is clear synergy and an obvious demonstration of how data can drive better decision making.
Planning – Made Easy
With data to hand on supply chain partners, their competencies, performance, criteria, accreditations and certifications – you can begin to identify problems before they impact your business. Whether it’s quality issues, delivery timescales, performance, cost creep or lack of capacity – data is the key to finding the factors inhibiting your growth.
Do – Without Delay
Technology platforms like SourceDogg help you implement your supply chain plan by streamlining sourcing and selection through simple-to-create buying events. Speed is of the essence here, so being able to quickly engage suppliers to solve the problems you’ve identified is a massive benefit.
To do this – you need data. Preferably consistent, accurate, up to date data in one place in the cloud so that all stakeholders can input on this and collaborate to make the plan happen.
Check – Analyse & Evaluate
Without data – how can you analyse without anecdote? Bringing together supplier performance data in a simple, exportable, blendable platform is like giving your supply chain team a superpower. Furthermore, adding in supplier relationship management features means that the suppliers themselves have clarity on your expectations and are bought into your strategic goals – ratcheting up the chances of success.
Act – Sustainable Growth
With continuous improvement, the end of the cycle is just the start of a new one.
This is again where supplier relationship management comes into play. Imagine that you have an engaged supplier base on board with clear KPIs across quality and costs that are in line with your commercial goals. If you then improve a mere couple of percentage points each year across 5 years – those thin margins start to fatten and your business performance can be transformed.
Bringing it all together…
In conclusion, continuous improvement isn’t just a set of tips and tricks that will spark exponential growth for your business. Importantly it should drive sustained growth. But as we’ve discussed above, this is reliant upon a philosophical change in your organisation, and openness to change (not just saying it, but honestly embedding this into your everyday work.) Flaws and problems must be seen as opportunities to improve and challenges to overcome.
We also believe that the methods to implement this are vastly improved, or even dependent on a strong data-led underpinning augmented with technology to make the change happen.
Otherwise, how can you truly know where the problems are, plan viable strategies to solve them and then check that your interventions worked?
Continuous improvement programmes using technology, systematically and in a standardised platform means that your team are empowered to succeed and can have open and transparent discussions with each other and their suppliers – without emotion, opinion and anecdote clouding your business growth.