Continual Improvement – why it matters

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Continual Improvement

Understanding what changes we might make takes time, and it takes time to work our settings and to understand everything about the machine.” Valentino Rossi

A business should never stand still while the world keeps turning, and this statement is particularly true at this current time. Companies should continue to adapt and improve because:

  • the needs of a customer regularly evolve so that they can remain competitive and profitable
  • market factors influence requirements and price points
  • suppliers continue to strive for differentiation from their competitors
  • there is heavy scrutiny on the cost to sell and cost to manage due to increased operational and material costs (never more prevalent!)
  • the ‘art of the possible’ changes through advancements in technology and solution capability

All these factors, and many more, lead us to a working environment where change is inevitable and where it should be fully supported and welcomed. It is essential that businesses, suppliers, and solution integrators have a robust Continual Improvement programme embedded somewhere in their DNA so that they are not only able to survive, but so that they thrive. 

Continual Improvement is a fundamental concept that we believe and invest in here at Walpole Partnership. Across all our business functions we encourage all team members to contribute ideas and suggestions which may improve our efficiency, accuracy, consistency and most importantly, the service we offer to our customers. In addition, every project that we undertake is scrutinised, and ‘lessons learned’ are recorded and taken on board for the benefit of future activity. 

We therefore adopt the following principles for our Continual Improvement (CI) programme:

  • Everyone from across the business is provided with the opportunity to suggest, manage and/or pilot their ideas which become ‘candidates’, and we run a Quarterly CI forum which is attended by the full team.
  • A suggestion for CI candidate does not need to be within an individual’s specific area of responsibility.
  • The knowledge transition between functions and departments is critical to our continued success and growth. We pro-actively encourage any individual that can offer value or experience to get involved with a CI candidate
  • The wisdom of the many far outweighs the knowledge of the one – collaboration is key to the success of the CI programme.

How do we manage our Continual Improvement?

We have adopted the ‘5 whys’ principle since it fits well with our desire to get down to the root cause of any need for CI and ensures that any changes we adopt or introduce are not superficial. When a CI item is delivered, it needs to be fully communicated and clearly explained to all the business areas that are impacted by it. As a growing business, this ensures we maximize the effort placed on working to resolve the CI candidate without the possibility of any apportionment of blame arising.

Through asking ‘why’ multiple times and repeatedly playing the role of devil’s advocate on behalf of our customer(s), our partner(s) or our internal functions, we fully consider the issue in focus, and constructively collaborate to determine the best solution. This enables us to agree potential solutions that fundamentally address the issue permanently instead of simply treating the symptoms.

The layers of asking ‘why’ several times is a reliable way of working through an identified CI candidate. For some simple tasks, the ‘5 whys’ is only completed once, but for more complex tasks involving multiple scenarios, the ‘5 whys’ may be worked through multiple times.

It is worth noting that our CI process is not a watertight fix to any business problem, as it merely facilitates the understanding of the issue. Often substantial research and the team’s valuable skills, knowledge and experience is vital to working out how to resolve a CI candidate, and how to implement the necessary change.

How do we manage our Continual Improvement programme and continue with our day-to-day roles?

Significant improvements have been made to many of our functional areas through collaboration on a CI task. We have assigned Cluster Leads to designated areas of our business, and each of the Leads maintain responsibility for the workflow of the CI candidate, whilst being respectful of the workload and capacity of the team. We do not dictate any timeframe to anyone who is assigned management of a CI item and the nominated owner is responsible for determining a sensible target date for completion. Our Quarterly CI forum allows us to monitor the CI programme and identify any which have a blocker or bottleneck so assistance or support can be provided to resolve the CI item.

How did we introduce Continual Improvement at Walpole Partnership?

Initially, we introduced, designed, and piloted the CI programme offline with in-house developed tools, and we targeted and successfully completed 20 CI tasks across the business in this way. This allowed us to hone the process, move away from heavy-maintenance spreadsheets and design an effective solution for our Continual Improvement programme.

Then, we officially launched our CI programme to the wider team and made available the tools, shared the User Guide and opened the door to new candidates. In the most recent quarter of 2022, progression remains exceptional, and we have fully completed 22 CI items (some of which are very significant enhancements to our business operating model), and in addition we have 24 items in progress and a further 8 candidates pending assignment from the Cluster Leads.

What tool(s) do we use to control and track our Continual Improvement ideas?

ASANA-Slack integration

We have developed a project in ASANA, a web-based work management platform, which utilises a logical workflow for CI items. We also leverage an ASANA-Slack integration for centralised notifications based on individual preferences. Using ASANA allows us to collaborate effectively on all CI items, extending the reach for specific areas to anyone across the team who may offer value. 

Our CI tasks are split into clusters which allows focus on CI candidates within business functions, resulting in the ability for area specialists to lead those dialogues. Our four Cluster Leads are responsible for:

  • Validating the scope of the candidate CI item with its originator
  • Assigning the candidate to a suitable resource to work on the CI and determine who they need to collaborate with (assessing capacity also)
  • Defining an indicative timescale for expected resolution with the assigned resource(s)
  • Agreeing to the closure of the CI item, verifying it has been communicated appropriately. Important: A resolved CI item is only valuable if it is well communicated and successfully adopted

Our clusters are defined as:

Continual Improvement clusters

Through ASANA dashboard reporting we can monitor and track key performance indicators (KPIs) and celebrate the success of any CI items which have been delivered during the period under review.

The use of ASANA is essential for our CI programme as it enables all CI related information to be centrally stored and fully accessible to the team. One of the key benefits of using ASANA is that it removes bottlenecks which could otherwise delay the process. All our team members can see the progress of their suggestions or share updates on items that they own, which in turn helps to break down any silos between departments, ultimately resulting in a culture of collaboration. It also removes the burden of ownership from specific individuals and makes the team more accountable for making positive changes within the business. The improved visibility from using a centralised tool leads to strong buy-in and a flurry of additional improvement ideas that can benefit Walpole Partnership overall.

Summary

Continual Improvement is fundamental to any growing business. To be successful, it must be inclusive and easily accessible to every team member. Managing the flow of Continual Improvement work remains essential to ensure focus is not lost on core business activity but work on CI items can take place when capacity allows. Collaboration is key, and teams must be encouraged to breakdown silos to get the best outcome. The primary focus must be on process and this is key to determine why improvement is needed before the development of any form of tool or solution.

To find out more about the individuals who adopted the Continual Improvement in Walpole Partnership see our Team page.

“Continual Improvement – why it matters” was written by Walpole Partnership’s Senior Consultant for Project Delivery, Ian Jenkins.

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