How to make Continuous Improvement truly successful
Although there are some pitfalls, with the right preparation and a shared understanding of the method and its goals, you can make feedback driven Continuous Improvement a great success.
CI'S conditions for success
Basically what you need is:
- A structured process.
- A multidisciplinary team.
- Clear business goals and MT buy-in.
- Reliable and up-to-date input data (both operational and experience data).
- A measurable goal for every initiative.
- Flexible execution resources.
- Proper tooling.
In other words, a serious and hefty checklist. Let’s elaborate on these seven points.
A structured process
Because of the multidisciplinary approach, and the need for different resources at different moments, predictability in the process is a must. This will enable you to plan all regular tasks and meetings in advance, allowing everyone to participate if needed. Organizing and planning on the fly, for every step in every improvement cycle, is simply not an option if you expect to make quick progress. A steady cadence will help people better organize their other work and set priorities. Seeing your co-workers commit to the process is a great motivator. Unfortunately, a lack of commitment can also make people lose interest, so make sure to keep a tight hand on the planning and availability, especially at the start.
A multidisciplinary team
While the improvement options surface from the bottom up, actually comparing and prioritizing them will be done in the CI team. And don’t forget, making an overview of all small issues and problems is only the first step. Their solutions and fixes can require specific expertise and knowledge. This means that different disciplines – such as UX designers, architects, consultants, sales reps, and managers – have to be available to discuss the initial prioritization. Potential further involvement in the following steps will of course depend on the prioritized initiatives.
Clear business goals and management buy-in
When a list of possible improvements has been created, they have to be prioritized using the principles of a Pain & Pain analysis, weighing costs against benefits. To score the benefits properly, they have to be aligned with the goals of the organization, the department, and the channel. This implies that a structure of (cascading) strategic goals is in place. If this isn’t the case, it’s up to the product owner to decide what should have priority, making him vulnerable to internal politics.
Reliable and up-to-date input data: the art of listening
A good CI process starts with observing and listening to the people on the floor. In this case, that means both employees and customers. The theory behind CI is that you structurally optimize all small issues, so you generally won’t be asking the CEO, department leader, or strategy consultant what they think the best improvement options are. These roles can have a say too of course, just a bit later in the process. But initially, it’s especially important to rely on the people closest to the source of the issues. They’re the ones able to tell you where you should remove or add a step in the process, or make a specific interaction smoother to gain a small advantage.
This input comes from experience data, which includes both individual customer and employee feedback, in addition to (big) data analysis from operational data. All this data is gathered through both internal and external surveys, AB testing, interviews, web analytics, BI analysis, Machine learning, and expert reviews, to name but a few options. It’s important to never lose sight of the complete end-to-end process and customer journey. This ensures your efforts are focused on the aspects of your business that will most effectively drive business value.
A measurable goal for every initiative
For each listed initiative the core team should come up with:
- A clear definition of the initiative.
- The business value of the initiative (gains).
- An estimate of the effort and budget needed (pains).
- Clear and measurable KPI’s that define success.
- Expected results.
To avoid unproductive discussions, it’s advisable to define a clear method of scoring the initiatives, so everyone is aligned on the outcomes and what makes a ‘good’ initiative. It will be up to the product owner to decide on the final selection, taking into account technical process dependencies, resourcing, and all other relevant challenges.
Flexible execution resources
While the core team will adhere to a strict process, executing the improvement tasks is less predictable and needs to be planned for each cycle. Some of these tasks can be assigned to the core team, while other tasks might demand specialized or other resources. There are different ways to manage this, depending on the nature of the organization. A few options are:
- Reserving a percentage of resources per role (UX, design, or development, for instance) and plan according to availability and priority.
- Using a Kanban board to let issues flow across disciplines.
- Creating a true multidisciplinary team and focus on a specific vertical per cycle (e.g. “This quarter is all about improving lead generation”). Be aware that this option also depends on the flexibility of your architecture.
- Using a flexpool of external experts that can be deployed quickly to meet the CI needs. (See our article on Blended Teams).
On a more practical level, a good product owner will be able to estimate roughly where resources are needed the next few cycles. Additionally, he’ll be prepared to shift priorities to match the available resources when needed. The most important aspect here is to balance all the tasks and resources. Make sure the priorities aren’t structurally dependent on the availability of resources, and that there’s flexibility to add new priorities to the top of the list if they present themselves.
The need for tooling depends on the scope of the operations. If the core team is working closely together, communication will be less of an issue. If there are multiple teams however, or one team working on multiple products, planning becomes more of a challenge. In all cases, there needs to be a system in place that gathers input and measures the results.
A first ‘must’ is setting up a communication protocol that everyone has access to, such as Skype, MS Teams, Slack, or any other tool that improves communication. In regards to ideation and roadmapping, there are dedicated tools out there that will help you with:
- Idea mgt (creation and voting).
- Roadmap creation.
- Backlog management.
- Project and resource management.
- Goal setting and performance tracking.
Consider AHA!, if you’re serious about mid and long term processes.
Arguably the most important part of CI is feedback management. Without correct and up-to-date input from your customers and organization, all improvement measures are based on a limited view. There’s a real danger you’re missing important options, or are placing too much value on certain options based on the ‘loudest voice’ around. If you’re serious about incremental improvements, and are going to put a lot of effort in setting up a team and process, you have to make sure you’re building on a strong foundation. Don’t initiate this process based on assumptions, and ensure both input and output are measurable.
Using an application like Qualtrics allows you to properly enable and manage the collection of customer and employee input, across all touchpoints, channels and departments. Qualtrics also increases the visibility of the project, by setting up custom dashboards featuring the initiatives and their (realtime) results.
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