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Let’s talk about continuous improvement

27 september 2022

Let’s talk about continuous improvement, Serge Huybrechts said.

And talking is what we did yesterday evening at the Agile Kitchen event hosted by iLean. A few of the people there were in one way or another connected to iLean, but ten or so others had managed to squeeze in this meetup with Serge in between work, dinner and parent-teacher meetings or putting kids to bed. I even suspect some were juggling a few of those simultaneously; I, for one, snuck in a plate of food at least. It was – to me – a surprisingly small amount of people, but possibly that made it cosier, more interesting and more interactive.

Serge brought us a bouquet of carefully selected bits of knowledge that he had gathered about this topic. He started with the warning that he offered them without any context or framework because it’s a recurring theme throughout many of those, if not all. Now and then, he ushered us off into breakout rooms to discuss some of the items he had presented. Let’s see if I can remember them or reconstruct them from some notes I jotted down. Let’s talk about continuous improvement and how to make that a habit.

  1. For continuous improvement to be a habit, you have to make room to free yourself from the most urgent and important items on your agenda (cfr Eisenhower matrix). Make sure it gets a first-class status on your priority list; avoid that it’s an afterthought or something you’ll do when there’s time.
  2. To make it a habit, you could treat it like martial arts, use kata, exercises that you repeatedly repeat until you can do them without thinking. Remember ‘wax on, wax off?
  3. You could benefit from using a template like the ‘Improvement theme’ by Jimmy Janlén. It made me think of treating the improvement efforts like scientific experiments: describe your hypothesis, keep it small and contained, look at the parameters involved and try to control them, and so on.
  4. Improvements often come in the form of increased effectiveness. It’s not enough to hit the target. It’s equally important to do that consistently and economically (effort and time). And what about looking at being able to reach results efficiently, no matter who’s available to pick up tasks?
  5. It might be more correct to talk about continual improvement instead of continuous improvement, as it highlights that you often reach new levels on your improvement path. You will also notice that the road that took you there has likely been somewhat chaotic. This idea made my brain remember Satir’s change model and Esther Derby talking about the ‘Forest succession principle’.
  6. Continuous improvement equals continuous learning. Serge reminded us about the single-loop and double-loop learning, something for which he referred to The Liberators.
  7. Given a few of the ideas above, it will be no surprise to hear that you should remember to measure your improvement efforts.
  8. Last but not least: celebrate! Celebrate the improvements and the learnings when the results you hoped for were not there. From the audience came the idea to also showcase the achievements. Not because it’s a good thing to brag (which is not necessarily a bad thing either!), but because others might benefit from what you’ve learned.

It was an hour packed with ideas, and it made the audience respond with their questions (How come many organisations fail at continuous improvement? Is it reasonable to have kaizen teams or not? …) or with things they’ve done or encountered themselves like shark tank systems and incentives or rewards for ideas and improvements. It showed that continuous improvement is very much a hot topic, or – scientific experiments in mind – at least it was in this ‘sample’ of people. 

Perhaps that leaves us to end with a warning:

What works for you and clearly improved things, is not necessarily something that will work in another context, not even for the team next door.

Originally posted on LinkedIn by Wim Van Nieuwenhoven