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Deploying Continuous Improvement Teams

Organizations that deploy advanced initiatives such as Lean and Six Sigma usually have some initial infrastructure including people trained to use basic quality improvement and operational tools and methods. A continuous improvement initiative provides a common language from which to start advanced initiatives. As an early initiative evolves, it creates core competencies for quality improvement as well as other benefits. In time, the available projects that benefit from using continuous improvement tools and methods will become saturated and the benefits will plateau. At this point, additional tools and methods will be needed to increase productivity (i.e., a second initiative). The prior initiative will already have identified opportunities that need different strategies for root cause identification and solutioning.

High-performance work teams enable a continuous improvement initiative. They are dispersed across an organization as quality circles composed of workers trained to use basic quality improvement methods. They improve quality within their work area with the help of a facilitator. The initial continuous improvement teams in the 1980s were seldom aligned with an organization’s strategic goals; the project benefits were often low relative to the required investment of employee time and other resources. This is because the projects of non-aligned teams will not be supported due to other priorities that are strategically aligned to produce benefits. Non-alignment also contributes to poor project selection and execution. This causes a continuous improvement initiative to fall into disuse. Other reasons for the failure of an initiative are poor training, lack of leadership support, poorly documented benefits (or none), and poor project execution.

In contrast, other organizations in the 1980s significantly increased productivity using continuous improvement by ensuring alignment to strategy and effective execution. This accelerated the deployment of subsequent initiatives. By the late 1990s, many organizations that had difficulty with continuous improvement started using Lean and Six Sigma. Continuous improvement programs were invigorated when the success factors inherent in Lean and Six Sigma were reapplied to them. Using additional tools and methods with strategic alignment, the productivity gains became impressive. Interestingly, Lean and Six Sigma training are typically offered to a small fraction of an organization to improve the performance of entire work teams in a process (e.g., accounting) or between several processes (e.g., a portion of a supply chain). As part of these deployments, other employees are trained to apply continuous improvement within their own work teams. In this context, these initiatives are compatible.

Deploying a continuous improvement team requires using success factors common to any business engagement: creation of the leadership council, deployment plan and schedule, performance goals, project charters, consistent messaging, and training team members. Continuous improvement initiatives help lay the foundation for Lean and Six Sigma deployments by disseminating the terminology, basic tools, and methods that will accelerate these and subsequent initiatives.

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