Continuous improvement tools and techniques are a powerful resource in the lean manufacturing implementation programme. Using and Leveraging the right one can lead to improved productivity, less waste, reduced costs and errors, and greater profitability overall. There are many different continuous improvement models that can help a business reach their lean targets. But how do you know which one is most suited to your organisation or specific challenges? In this article, we look at a range of options that can help process management, streamline quality management, and improve efficiency.


 1. PDCA

The PDCA cycle (short for plan, do, check, act) provides you with a systematic approach to testing different ideas and hypotheses. It can help you to implement continuous improvement throughout your organisation using a structured framework. If you want to improve business processes, efficiency, or productivity, then the PDCA cycle can certainly help. The framework gives front line teams a four-step guide for introducing incremental improvement practices. It enables them to avoid making the same mistakes repeatedly and is commonly used in lean tools. PDCA stands for:

• Plan – define your strategic goals and how you’ll achieve them.

• Do – implement the plan and make any changes required to ensure it works.

• Check – evaluate the results and identify opportunities for improvement.

• Act – make adjustments based on what’s found in the previous step.

Some companies follow a slightly modified PDSA cycle, where the S stands for ‘study’ instead of check. It’s very similar to PDCA but involves passively observing instead of proactively checking. One of the key benefits of PDCA is that it’s easy to understand and remember. Companies can hit the ground running very quickly and then tweak it as they go along.


2. Gemba Walks

When it comes to continuous improvement tools, Gemba walks can be very powerful. They enable you to tap into the most valuable resource a company has: its people. The most innovative improvement ideas often come from the employees who are working on the front line and problem-solving on a daily basis. They have an in-depth understanding of their particular area of the manufacturing process and are able to provide potential solutions. They are the closest to the day to day issues.

The best way to capture these valuable insights is to get out of the offices and into the ‘Gemba’. This is the place where things actually happen, such as manufacturing, Purchasing or product development. Gemba walks involve interacting with staff on an informal basis at the location where they do their work (as opposed to a meeting room). It enables observation of real-life situations or the actual production process so that leaders have a better idea of things that are happening.

This casual yet accurate form of data collection can be a powerful tool for companies that like simple improvement tools and techniques. Regular Gemba walks also develop better employee relationships and a greater focus on continuous improvement. They provide a framework for regular interaction and create a habit of consistent feedback collection. However, it’s important not to use them as an opportunity to reprimand staff as this will make them less likely to open up and share their thoughts.

This approach is best used to observe and collect data which can be used to inform future decision making. However, it’s not an end-to-end solution for improving business processes since it doesn’t facilitate the implementation or measurement. It is simply intended as a way to gather ideas and suggestions that can then be followed-up later.

So, if you are going to try this approach, it’s really important that you have a mechanism in place for acting upon what you learn. You can use it in combination with other tools on this list or a follow-up process of your own. If no actions or improvements take place the staff will soon lose confidence and interest.


3. 3M’s – Muri, Mura, and Muda

The 3M’s were identified as part of the Toyota lean production system. They refer to three different categories of deviation that cause problems for companies. These issues can manifest themselves in manufacturing, research and development, marketing, finance or any number of other departments.

The 3M’s refer to Japanese words that are usually translated as:

• Muri – overburden caused by lack of resources, poor planning, or too much waste removal.

• Mura – unevenness or irregularities which tend to be the source of ‘muda’ waste issues.

• Muda – waste such as excessive transport, materials flow, inventory, waiting, overproduction, or defects.

In pursuing a lean approach to business, the 3M’s is one of the best continuous improvement tools for identifying problems that also eliminates waste. It can be used to highlight issues or opportunities for operations to become leaner.

The system is helpful for total quality management (TQM) and promoting the adoption of lean practices that create value for the customer – leading to more orders and better cost control. It can be helpful to work through the 3M’s in turn.

Looking for examples of Muri or overburden in your business will enable you to identify areas that need more resources or could benefit from better planning. Finding the sources of Mura or irregularities in your products will facilitate the next step of decreasing Muda or waste. It’s also important to consider other sources of waste too in order to streamline your lean operations to their full potential. This will allow you to focus on the elements that drive customer value and minimize the wasteful aspects that drain resources unnecessarily.


4. 5 Why’s

The 5 why’s is one of the best continuous improvement tools for root cause analysis. It can help you to identify the source of a problem and see beyond the superficial issue. By asking ‘why’ several times in a row, you can dig deeper into the heart of a problem. This enables you to them come up with potential solutions that accurately address it instead of just treating the symptoms. It also helps teams to move past apportioning blame or finger pointing to find the real issue.

Using the 5 why’s a technique can also help you to determine the relationships between cause and effect (ideal for creating a fishbone diagram). It’s a simple tool that anyone can utilize without the need for statistical analysis like the complicated data regression or hypothesis testing.

Businesses may find that they need to ask ‘why’ a few more times or a few less to get to the root of an issue. But this approach is a full proof way of getting to the heart of anything that is not working. However, as with the Gemba Walk approach, this is not an end-to-end solution. It’s a powerful method for getting to the heart of an issue and identifying improvement opportunities. But it doesn’t facilitate the implementation of any ideas or provide a structure for coming up with solutions. It’s intended to help businesses get to the real issue instead of being distracted by superficial answers. This makes it a very useful tool to have in your arsenal but one that needs to be combined with others in order to enact meaningful change.


5. Toyota Kata

Coaching The Toyota Kata concept was observed by Mike Rother as part of his research into the car company. Renowned for its Kaizen methodology of continuous improvement, he noticed behaviour patterns or ‘katas’ that were contributing to it. One of these katas related to the coaching of employees so that they learn, improve and focus their efforts in the right direction.

If you feel that your team is unmotivated or no longer developing, then Toyota Kata coaching could help them to improve effort. It sets regular challenges for them to achieve so that they’re always striving for continuous improvement. They are encouraged to develop daily improvement routines or habits that eventually become second nature.

This approach provides a structure for continuous learning and development. This helps to reengage employees who feel stuck or those that have hit a plateau in their professional growth. Over time, this contributes to quality improvement and boosts productivity, so that your employees, customers, and bottom line all benefit. There are a series of questions that managers can use to facilitate Kata Coaching with their staff members. They are designed to prompt reflection and self development on the part of the employee. These questions are:

1. What was your last step?

2. What did you expect to happen?

3. What actually happened?

4. What did you learn?

Using these questions provides a framework for coaching discussions. They encourage employees to be proactive and think for themselves. They put the onus on staff members to identify issues and development areas so that it’s not just a one-way discussion. This aids engagement and helps to ensure that meaningful learning takes place.

5. External support and Grant funding

There are various Local and West Midlands based grants available to manufacturing SMEs to use external expertise and support to implement these techniques and tools.

Jas Bahra 

Primo Business Solutions