The main challenges for Continuous Improvement and how to get started

In order to properly implement Continuous Improvement it is important that all stakeholders are aware of potential pitfalls, and the best practices on how to avoid them.

More challenging to quantify

From a management perspective CI is harder to grasp and quantify than most traditional projects. Large implementations or change projects, for instance, come with a predefined end result and date. Therefore, costs and profits can be more easily estimated. This makes traditional projects easier to decide on, plan, and propose to the senior management, whereas CI is an ongoing process of small victories (and some valuable failures as well).

Steering on business outcomes

CI is managed based on business outcomes, not a set of predefined functional and non-functional requirements. This makes them valuable and exciting to work on, but challenging at the same time, because the team has to nurture an entrepreneurial mindset. In other words, the team needs to be ready to:

  • Discuss the business value of new initiatives, not just the technical or functional requirements.
  • Change direction, whenever data suggests this is the best course of action.
  • Accept that sometimes not perfect has to be good enough, if shifting focus to other initiatives leads to higher business value.

Generally, this requires a senior mentality, where team members have to be aware of, and embrace, their (limited) impact on the bigger picture.

CI requires deep integration into the organization

The CI team needs to stay closely connected to the entire organization. This connection demands and consists of:

  • Management support: Many layers of the organization are potentially affected and targeted by this process, requiring time and attention of the related employees. Therefore, support of senior management is needed. Failing to include this will most likely cause delays – due to priorities not being acted upon, and resource or budget issues – which can quickly lead to indetermination and people losing motivation.
  • Visibility: New ideas, the roadmap, priorities (including the reasoning why they are priorities), successes and failures, all these elements need to be visible to those involved or interested. This will keep the program top-of-mind, which in turn makes it easier to allocate resources, get good input, and keep people motivated even if their preferred improvement is not yet implemented.
  • A strong product owner, who is capable and authorized to:
    • Make decisions and set priorities
    • Actively keep all participants involved and motivated. This is important for the CI team and management, but especially for the ‘people on the floor’ who experience the outcomes of their suggested improvements.
    • Be 100% cross-functional, and discuss important topics with business departments, engineers, designers, and salespeople.
    • Weigh business value against technical and functional improvements, and explain and defend his choices.

Flexibility in resource planning

At a certain stage of the CI process, the most promising ideas are turned into action so they will start delivering value. The challenge is: not knowing beforehand what these ideas precisely entail and require. They can range from making functional, organizational, and process changes, to improving integrations, adding a new web service, or updating the visual styling of a webpage. You have to be prepared for everything.

After outlining a list of potential improvement options, we can start planning and allocating resources, but this shouldn’t be done too far in advance. If a specific improvement requires substantial work to be done it’s better to turn it into a separate project, since CI works best when using short cycles of improvements that can also be measured and validated in similarly short cycles. That’s why there needs to be room for flexibility in the planning, in order to accommodate for CI improvement actions. This is easier said than done however, which is another reason why you need strong management buy-in. One way to manage this challenge is through working with blended teams, or by adopting the best suited management methods.

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