Is Continuous Improvement at Small Companies Possible?By Antonio Salem Gómez | Mon, 08/22/2022 - 10:00
Continuous Improvement has been a well-known concept for decades; medium and large companies normally use it and have departments to manage it, but what about small companies? Many people think that implementing and supporting a Continuous Improvement process is an expensive task and, in some cases, it could be; however, if we go back to basics, the concept could be expressed in the following simple steps:
1. Identify those problems that are most hurting the organization, prioritize them and select from the top.
2. Investigate the root cause of the selected problem to be resolved and take corrective and preventive actions to remediate them.
3. Monitor the results of the actions taken and, if needed, take additional actions.
4. If a problem is controlled, move to the next one on the list.
It is important to understand that this is an endless process, thus the term “continuous.” But, if well executed, it will drive us to a list of less critical problems and operations will significantly improve.
Key factors for a successful Continuous Improvement program are:
- To be managed by a leader with a clear and broad vision of the operation. Problems can be not only related to quality, but economical, efficiency, image, market share or other topics that are relevant to the company.
- Integrate a multidisciplinary group with a focus on “problem-solving,” not “guilty-finding.” The basic premise must be that problem belongs to all participants, not just to one department and participants are there to contribute with their knowledge, not to defend a department.
- The program must be supported at the highest level of the organization. Sometimes solutions will require investments or difficult decisions. In those cases, top management involvement becomes critical.
- Only analyze as many problems as can be reasonably managed at a time. Avoid the temptation to try to solve many problems at the same time as effectiveness will suffer.
- When required, integrate specific experts into the investigation process under the oversight group.
- Publicly recognize the good results of the group.
As can be seen, a successful Continuous Improvement program is not a result of a large number of resources applied to it, but good leadership, order and discipline, which is why it can be implemented at small companies as well.
Some years ago, I had the opportunity to implement a Continuous Improvement program at a small airline in Mexico. The general premise was to grow its operations and size of aircraft, while maintaining a lean structure and high efficiency.
Selection of members of the group became critical, particularly as workers’ unions were distrustful of the program, believing it would be used for punishment purposes. This is where leader credibility comes into play. Finally, we were able to integrate a good team from different areas, all knowledgeable about their duties and with their bosses’ blessings to ensure positive participation.
The group defined those concepts to be monitored, deploying them as practically as possible to generate useful control graphs. Top management validated them, establishing acceptable limits and providing feedback to include other variables considered important for the organization.
As soon as the graphs showed what the biggest problems were, a prioritized list was developed and validated by top management. As beginners, we decided to take just one problem (the top one) to start our analysis.
As the analysis process advanced, we found that the origin of the problem was not limited to just one area but that various departments were involved, which is when we confirmed the value of integrating a multidisciplinary group.
Corrective and preventive actions were taken and with good results, without causing any delays. With this quick hit, we continued analyzing and correcting problems. Any attempt within the group to start a discussion that was not objective was firmly stopped, reinforcing the focus on teamwork.
Meanwhile, the operation grew its fleet from 19-seat turboprops to 34-seat turboprops, to 50-, 70-, and 99-seat jets, growing in number from 30 to 50 airplanes and doubling the number of flights and airports served.
The company maintained its lean and healthy organizational structure and profits came as a logical result. Aircraft manufacturers of the fleet used our company as a success case in demonstrations at worldwide forums of a very heavy operation supported by a small staff with very good reliability numbers.
As you see, a Continuous Improvement program helped not just in solving operational problems but also helped to maintain an efficient operation. It is important to clarify that the group was composed of people who still completed duties related to their departments; no one was 100 percent dedicated to the program.
When needed, we invited experts or managers from specific areas to help us with analysis or decision-making. In those cases, indoctrination to obtain objective help was the first step to avoid anyone feeling they were being attacked.
In my experience, small companies can implement a successful Continuous Improvement program without a large investment, with its own key personnel and without affecting their assigned duties. The role of the leader of the program is critical for success.
Antonio Salem is an experienced Aeronautical Engineer, Master in Integral Quality Administration and S&A Aeronautical Consulting Group founder.