Successful businesses continuously build off of improvement and the advancement of their practices and products. This improvement is often seen as a natural consequence of growth — something that comes from the inertia of moving forward and managing your business successfully. But is it efficient?

While the passive growth approach may work for some, there is a better, more intentional way to advance your business. It’s called the continuous improvement business strategy

Continuous improvement can be learned, adapted, and applied to your processes in a way that streamlines your operations and utilizes your resources as efficiently as possible.

Idea Pipeline - Continuous Improvement 101

What is Continuous Improvement?

Continuous improvement is the ongoing improvement of products, processes, or services.

Brilliant ideas can’t be incubated or fabricated. But waiting for them to happen as if they were a weather phenomenon is not very productive. Idea management is a crucial competitive advantage in any business, and continuous improvement pinpoints, breeds, and nourishes good ideas.

What are the Benefits of a Continuous Improvement Program?

An integral part of any company’s bottom-up continuous improvement culture is involving every employee in the process. By doing so, you empower everyone to contribute to the process and share accountability for progress. As we will see further on, this is one of the main benefits of this meta-process. Other benefits include:

Streamlined Workflows

Streamlined Workflows

 

Better teamwork

Better Teamwork

 

Engaged Employees

Engaged Employees

 

Lower Employee Turnover

Lower Employee Turnover

 

Better Products or Services

Better Products or Services

 

Improved Customer Service

Improved Customer Service

 

Increased Efficiency and Productivity

Increased Efficiency and Productivity

 

Establishment of a Proactive Learning Culture

Establishment of a Proactive Learning Culture

 

The business ecosystem is ever-changing, and if you are stuck doing things the way you were doing them five or ten years ago, you risk losing customers. A continuous improvement approach challenges companies to stay on top of the trends and get out of their comfort zone to reach the next level of success.

Improvement culture

Establishing and Embracing a Continuous Improvement Culture

From company buy-in to implementation, integrating a new process or methodology in your organization can feel daunting. However, in the case of continuous improvement, its success relies on a shift in mindset rather than adding new steps to your team’s already busy schedules. Continuous improvement should focus on increasing efficiency and seamlessly flowing into your organization’s existing processes, not doubling the overall workload. 

The key to success? Only implement change where it’s needed.

One approach we recommend is lean continuous improvement (LCI), or a form of continuous improvement that focuses on reducing waste and optimizing your current business processes and operations. 

A successful continuous improvement culture demands complete involvement and immersion from everyone in the organization. Your team should thoroughly understand the business goals and the general trajectory of the change. Instead of treating employees like passive workers, include them in the process and allow them to question the status quo and even pitch their own ideas.

LCI programs, while they start with the higher-ups, shouldn’t stop there. The transition needs to work its way from the bottom-up.

What is Bottom-Up Innovation?

Bottom-up innovation is the concept where ideas “bubble up” from anywhere within an organization instead of a dedicated team or department. Every employee can lead the idea through innovation by utilizing company relationships and relying on their unique knowledge and experience in the organization. Additionally, individual employees are more likely to influence and encourage their colleagues towards changes than higher-ups.

When all employees take part in idea generation, they act as innovative individuals and idea critics. They can challenge each other’s — and their higher-ups’ — ideas to help fill in gaps and improve on them without fearing for their current position in the organization.

Idea Pipeline - Bottom Up Innovation Culture Webinar

Why is Strategic Idea Management the Key to Organized Company-Wide Continuous Improvement?

Continuous improvement and innovation come hand in hand. However, in the context of an entire organization, where employees suggest ideas and solutions to small- and large-scale problems around the clock, there needs to be an efficient way to manage those ideas, develop them, and put them to good use.

In some organizations’ architecture, it may make sense to dedicate a team or department to managing ideas. But even then, the hierarchy of the company needs to own a portion of the idea management.

Bottom-up management has countless benefits, such as:

1. Encouraging Collaboration

When there isn’t one “boss” in a department, the weight of idea management spreads out across multiple employees. Not only does this give employees a sense of responsibility, but it also encourages them to abandon implementing ideas without involving their colleagues.

2. Boosting Morale

High morale is essential for projects that aren’t guaranteed to succeed or go smoothly. It’s much easier for employees to boost each other’s morale in a group instead of isolated individuals.

3. Generating Insight

How things run at the bottom of the organization is different from how it runs in the middle and top. By implementing a bottom-up management system, you can garner insights from multiple parts of the organization that would’ve otherwise gone unnoticed until it’s too late.

4. Empowering Your Team

Empowering your team makes them more likely to become proactive with the project rather than simply follow orders in something they have little investment in. Empowering your team encourages them to step forward with the ideas and solutions and even take more calculated risks.

Like any other company-wide shift, successfully implementing continuous improvement relies on the buy-in and support of your employees.

Want to learn more about establishing an “innovation” culture and the challenges that could hinder your success? Check out our full post, “Establishing and Embracing a Continuous Improvement Culture.”

The Most Common Pitfalls of Innovation Management

Idea generation will take some work, but it shouldn’t add a heavy burden to yourself or your team.

Here are five tips for cultivating a culture of workplace innovation without burning everybody out in the process.

Idea Pipeline - 5 Donts of Innovation Management

 

1. Don’t Be Afraid to Change your Culture

Innovation management is a team sport. That means everyone has a role to play in the game and its results. Everyone’s voice is worth hearing, and you never know where or who the next brilliant idea will come from. Studies have shown the best results come from being willing to innovate with new ideas and share them with colleagues.

That means three things in particular:

  • Learning to treat failure as an opportunity.
  • Creating a space for people to express their ideas fearlessly.
  • Seeking out contradiction rather than affirmation.

2. Don’t Use Suggestion Boxes

Despite their popularity, suggestion boxes are often too simplistic and low effort to be truly useful. Their anonymity means a lack of ownership, which means a lack of responsibility and earnestness.

Here are more reasons why you should skip the suggestion box:

  1. When someone pulls your idea from a hat and implements it, it ceases to be “your” idea. You’ve given it away.
  2. The people responsible for reviewing and approving suggestion box ideas spend a lot of time that could have gone elsewhere.
  3. Suggestion boxes tend to “bottleneck.” It can take a long time to receive feedback on an idea you put in, and, over time, people lose faith that their ideas are being seen at all.
  4. Out of the small percentage of suggestion box ideas that actually reach implementation, only a small percentage succeed, meaning most of the effort put toward suggestion boxes turns to dust.

3. Don’t Create Initiatives That Distract From Organizational Objectives

Google is a prime example of a company that welcomes innovation but also knows how to stay focused. They utilize a “golden rule” of 70-20-10 to divide their work time:

  • 70 percent devoted to core-level initiatives vital to their business, such as the AdWords advertising platform or refining their evergreen search engine
  • 20 percent devoted to secondary initiatives for their business model, such as Google Earth and other projects
  • 10 percent devoted to what they call “moonshot projects” — the seemingly unattainable long-shot initiatives that might be attainable, such as Google X

The important lesson here is to discern the necessary activities in your organization, funnel the majority of your human and financial resources toward that, and leave some time leftover for less pressing projects.

How that looks for you will depend on the particulars of your organization. Thomas Edison said that “Genius is 99 percent perspiration and one percent inspiration.” Under 70-20-10, your team will always work on your inspired ideas in some capacity and dedicate brainpower to continuous improvement.

Hard work is where the pedal meets the metal. Innovation management is about idea generation followed up by mastery and execution. Even if you fail, you will have left it all on the field and gained valuable experience for next time. Failure is part of the process.

Team reviewing their process

Developing a Proven Continuous Improvement Process

Continuous improvement practices need to be implemented company-wide to be successful although every department or team should have different goals and activities. Improvement processes should not only bring about short and long-term changes but should also help create an environment where teamwork and collaboration are expected and rewarded.

What is a Continuous Improvement Process?

A continuous improvement process (CIP) is a systematic approach to create, prioritize and implement improvements in services, products, and processes. The goal is to achieve widespread and lasting success by making small improvements regularly that eventually lead to large improvements.

A continuous improvement plan should include common language and best practices so everyone participating understands the short- and long-term goals as well as the path to achieving them. Each CIP should be customized for the distinct goals of the implementing department. Although the concepts may be similar from department to department, the specific goals and achievements should be specific to each team.

How to Create a Continuous Improvement Process

Before jumping into the creation of your improvement process plan, you need to determine areas for improvement. It is best to hone in on a specific area, like customer service or tightening cybersecurity. By focusing on a single goal, you can more easily outline the necessary steps to achieve your goal and track your progress. 

Similar to goals, each process should also be specific to the chosen area of your business. The steps for achieving better customer service will be different than the ones needed to improve your cybersecurity. A one-size-fits-all process won’t work. 

Utilize Agile Project Management

Agile is a project management style that encourages short bursts of development, or ‘sprints,’ with each cycle having a preset continuous improvement goal. Agile project management is only successful when stakeholders and workers collaborate. This leads to better communication and understanding between the two groups, and, in turn, leads to more efficient and effective work down the road.

Agile focuses on the interactions of people and how these interactions can fuel improvements. The goal is to deliver the most value possible within a predetermined period and budget. The basic tenets of agile are: 

  • The customer is always the first priority: The entire system is driven by the desire to provide customers with the best quality product or service for the best value. Although high quality is an important aspect, you can’t achieve success without attentive management and teamwork. 
  • Focus on individuals and interactions, not tools or procedures: The free sharing of ideas and plans is a mainstay of agile. Leaders accustomed to giving orders will have to adjust to the idea of serving on the team as opposed to leading it. 
  • Adapt and adjust: This style favors frequent reevaluation and reassignment of priorities and goals rather than a long, drawn-out plan. 
  • Prioritize solutions over promising reports: The building of prototypes is favored over the creation of reports. Examining a prototype will give you more valuable information than a report can. 

Kaizen Cycle vs. Deming Cycle (PDCA)

There are many similarities between the Kaizen and PDCA continuous improvement practices and both of them share concepts with the lean startup method. Each is based on the scientific method and makes use of empirical evidence to drive change. Here’s a closer look at both methods:

Kaizen Cycle

Roughly translated, Kaizen means “good change,” — a philosophy that drives this style of CIP. You can dive deep into Kaizen philosophy, but for our purposes, we will focus on the Kaizen cycle, which is the basic concept on which this CIP is built.

The cycle consists of 7 steps:

  1. Delegate people to find pressing problems and areas for improvement
  2. Prioritize those problems
  3. Create solutions
  4. Test those solutions
  5. Analyze the results
  6. Keep what works and make those solutions the standard
  7. Repeat the whole cycle

These steps only work if you remember the basic motto of the Kaizen process, “Every day, everywhere, and by everybody.” Like almost any path to success, this adage should remind you that teamwork, communication and commitment to a common goal are vital to the long-term success of any venture.

Kaizen will not only help your company to fix existing problems, but also help to create a bonded workplace better positioned to adapt to the ups and downs of the business cycle.

Deming Cycle (PDCA)

PDCA stands for “Plan, Do, Check, Act” and these are the four cornerstone tenets of the Deming Cycle. Created in the 1700s, this continuous improvement process has proven its value and effectiveness for hundreds of years. In fact, the International Standardization Organization (ISO) still uses it to create industry standards.

Like all continuous improvement plans, PDCA is only effective when you repeat it until you reach your desired goals and create new ones. While its simplicity is the key to its effectiveness, it can also be a drawback. Instead of analyzing results along the way, the PDCA process finishes one cycle and adapts before beginning the new one. Because of this, it cannot easily adapt to a multitiered improvement plan, nor does it foster communication and teamwork like the Kaizen plan.

For this reason, the Kaizen plan may be the best choice for most of today’s business structures.

Implementing a Continuous Improvement Process at Your Company

Even departments with wildly different goals, can effectively use the methods discussed above to drive change and achieve their respective goals.

A company that empowers its workforce to suggest, implement, and give feedback, creates a workplace environment where teamwork and open communications are the norm. This is an environment that leads to long term success.

Innovation Management Tips to Bookmark *FOREVER*

Though many business owners and leaders acknowledge the importance of establishing a continuous improvement process that results in tangible change, they don’t know where to tactically begin. At this point, you may be asking yourself one or all of the following questions:

  • How do I inspire people to participate in continuous improvement?
  • How do I evaluate the proposed solutions without discouraging employee participation?
  • How do I organize and manage the proposed solutions so they actually come to fruition?

Teammates looking at laptop

The following three tips will help you answer these questions and a better idea of how you can jumpstart your continuous improvement pipeline.

Leverage Challenge-Based Initiatives

Combining the simplicity of the suggestion box with the advanced capabilities of innovation management software, challenge-based initiatives are a better way to crowdsource improvement solutions. This approach poses focused process improvement questions to the right team members and fosters closer collaboration, and helps management find suggestions that matter. Here’s how they can help.

1. Focused Ideation

One of the greatest benefits of challenged-based initiatives is their focused approach to continuous improvement. While the average suggestion box serves as little more than a reservoir for unrelated concerns, challenges ask specific questions about improving current practices. This results in suggestions tailored to the problem, improving idea quality and filtering out the distractions.

Asking the right questions helps you get the right answers, and the focused ideation of challenge-based initiatives helps you do just that.

2. Safe Participation

Whether they're shy or disillusioned, employees are often reluctant to share their best ideas. Twenty-nine percent of employees report having their ideas stolen by a coworker — and sometimes management themselves can be responsible for the theft. By taking credit for their employees' ideas, some managers have left their workers overlooked, souring them to the idea of sharing their thoughts again. 

Challenge-based initiatives enable better innovation management by giving employees a safe place to share their ideas. The forums that host challenges offer reliable evidence of who originated an idea and give shy employees a place to share their ideas without being face-to-face.

3. Easy Implementation

Even if employees know they have a safe place to share their ideas, they're unlikely to use a tool that slows them down. Conventional innovation management solutions lie on two ends of the spectrum: they're either too simple to help or too complicated to adopt — and both hinder employee adoption. Some downsides of each are:

  • Poor timing: Overly simple idea management tools like suggestion boxes offer no definite time frame for when ideas will be discussed or implemented, leaving employees to submit their suggestions at the last minute, if at all. Conversely, complex innovation management software includes a learning curve and training, further draining time resources.
  • Low visibility: With no idea about where their suggestions go once they're submitted, employees often refrain from using suggestion boxes because their ideas seem to disappear into a black hole. Meanwhile, bloated software solutions make it too difficult for workers to track their suggestions, so they're still left in the dark about progress or lack thereof.
  • Less productivity: While suggestion boxes offer minimum direction and little more than a place to vent, complex software has unnecessary features that hinder implementation. In both cases, worker productivity stalls.

By offering a helpful, adoptable solution, challenge-based initiatives avoid both extremes. With added functionality like solution deadlines, employees submit their ideas in a more timely manner, making it easier for managers to act on them. Feedback features also help boost employee voices, and the simple user interface facilitates participation without hindering productivity.

4. Company Collaboration

Who wants to express their ideas when they feel like they're not heard? Some idea management tools fail because employees don’t receive feedback or progress updates. 

As with the complexity problem, challenge-based initiatives also solve collaboration shortcomings of many innovation management methods. For software, feedback features such as "like" buttons and comment threads help employees receive recognition from colleagues and managers. 

Such collaboration improves idea quality further and helps break down organizational silos, as employees refine each others' suggestions along the way and work towards a shared goal. Organizational silos are detrimental to the organization's culture, efficiency, and productivity. While elements like knowledge and creativity contribute to a thriving and productive team, factors like collaboration and communication are vital for interdepartmental cooperation.

As valuable as such teamwork can be, not every team member needs to chime in on every challenge. Unlike suggestion boxes of old, challenge-based initiatives enable managers to direct their questions to specific team segments and foster better input in the process.

By nature, challenge-based initiatives will help good ideas rise to the top and weed out unhelpful recommendations from the likes of suggestion boxes. However, there may be instances where you have to deny impractical ideas that have gained traction with your employees. Next, we’ll talk about how to handle it.


Balance Idea Popularity and Feasibility

When your company wants to prioritize bottom-up innovation, you'll find that many suggestions just aren't feasible. To add to this, some of these unfeasible ideas will also be very popular. 

The problem lies in the fact that idea popularity is integral to bottom-up innovation. You want employees to be engaged in the process, and peer voting on idea submissions in an idea management platform is a massive part of that. So, what do you do when the most popular ideas are not feasible?

You have several options for balancing idea popularity with feasibility. By following these four best practices for idea management, you can minimize unfeasible ideas and work with the ideas you do receive more effectively.

Team working together to choose best ideas

1. Avoid Overly-Broad Challenge Audiences

A common strategy is to challenge as many employees across different teams as possible. This strategy assumes that this broad challenge will increase engagement, participation, and excitement for new bottom-up innovation initiatives. It will also bring in the most submissions, and who doesn’t like more submissions! However, when you challenge too many employees, the idea request becomes less exclusive, and employees can actually become less engaged.

2. Set Submission Guidelines

The ideas you collect from a challenge will only be as good as the challenge itself. Your challenge needs to be direct and specific. Guide people to understand which suggestions are feasible and which aren't. You should include guidelines such as:

  • Budgetary goals
  • Resource restrictions
  • Time constraints

When you provide these parameters and anything else that seems relevant, you ensure that the ideas you receive are more likely to be feasible and not cross any uncompromising restrictions.

3. Discover Why Ideas are Popular 

Whatever you do, don't ignore popular ideas. Even if they don't meet your parameters, their very popularity is valuable. Your bottom-up innovation and leadership will quickly lose momentum if you regularly ignore the most popular ideas without any concessions.

4. Constructively Criticize and Offer Compromises

A little extra effort can make one of the most popular solutions work with compromises and constructive criticism. If the three most popular ideas are firmly outside your feasibility requirements, it's time to reach out to the team. Ask some tough questions: 

  • Why is this idea so important? 
  • How is it better than any other idea on the list? 
  • Why must it exceed the feasibility requirements? 
  • What can be changed without compromising the idea’s popularity?

These questions lead to valuable negotiations. You can work with the teams affected by the idea to adjust it into something that fits your parameters. You find a compromise that makes both leadership and ground-floor employees happy and maintains employee buy-in.


Choose a Model: Centralized vs Decentralized Idea Management

Most business leaders agree about the importance of cultivating promising ideas from the workforce to ensure long-term success for the organization. However, many run into struggles finding a way to organize and manage the proposals effectively. It’s usually the result of not having a clearly defined idea management strategy in place. Options include a centralized, decentralized, or hybrid model approach.

Centralized Idea Management

The centralized business model works by having employees come up with ideas. They feed them into a transparent online system accessible to everyone. Those ideas get collected by Category Managers charged with overseeing different areas of the company. Any concepts with impacts to their business units get developed further.

Once the ideas are ready, the Category Managers take the recommendations to a steerage group set up by the organization to go over the validity of each proposal. The members talk through each idea and the feasibility of implementation. All unendorsed ideas remain in an idea management software system until manually removed.

Ideas that get a green light get evaluated for potential implementation in a future project. Once a project team forms to move the idea forward, that project manager contacts stakeholders through the system. They typically accomplish this with a few keystrokes or clicks within a system interface along with a single sentence communicating the status.

Challenge managers or admins can accomplish this in an idea management platform like Idea Pipeline by “endorsing” ideas and assigning “idea champions” or various stewards of the idea that are tasked with specific jobs to ensure the idea moves through different stages until implementation.

A larger project may involve more gatekeeping where yes/no decisions might end up going back through the steerage committee. Most groups rely on an idea evaluation process to gather enough information about an idea beforehand to streamline the decision-making process. For example, suppose an idea comes into the pipeline to replace an outdated desktop data entry platform with a faster web-based application. The steerage committee would go over how the upgrade would benefit the organization as a whole.

Considerations might include how much it would cost to perform the upgrade, the time it would take to train employees on the new application, and whether it would impact production enough to be worth the investment. In addition, the steerage committee also maintains responsibility for the entire centralized idea management process, including monitoring results and coming up with ways to improve how it works.

Decentralized Idea Management

While centralized management offers a way for organizations to manage line of sight over an idea from creation, some prefer a different approach. Decentralized idea management functions similarly to centralized idea management, with the biggest difference being the elimination of a steerage committee overseeing the process.

In a centralized idea management process, category managers develop ideas further before presenting them to the steerage committee for a final decision. That role expands further in a decentralized model, where the category manager also takes on responsibility for making decisions about whether those ideas advance to becoming full-blown projects. This process eliminates bureaucracy and speeds decision-making among those that know what it takes to implement an idea.

Because you have specific business units taking ownership of implementing the idea, it is easier for them to control the processes that go into producing the final product. That leads to faster, more informed decision-making and a better chance the result meets the needs of stakeholders.

Company executives direct the flow of ideas, keep up with the results, and have discussions with Category Managers about any possible roadblocks or opportunities for improvement. As a result, you’ll often find decentralized idea management in place within companies that have a workforce numbering between 200 and 500 people. It’s also a good model for larger organizations making more minor, incremental improvements in a product or process.

Wrap it All Up With Idea Management Software

Continuous improvement and idea management are two important, process-driven initiatives that meld to create an innovation culture in your company.

Idea management software streamlines your continuous improvement processes and makes it accessible to every team member.

Some of the benefits of idea management software include:

  • The ability to target challenges to specific teams or individuals
  • The ability for team members to efficiently “vote” on or “like” ideas
  • Enhanced transparency regarding idea flow from submission to implementation
  • Historical records of submitted and implemented ideas

At the end of the day, for continuous improvement and an innovation culture to thrive in your business, it needs to be as simple as possible for all stakeholders to access and understand your systems. Idea Pipeline is uniquely positioned as a low-friction provider of idea management software that allows your teams to start submitting their best challenge-based ideas in a matter of days, not weeks or months.

Ready to benefit from a transparent, streamlined idea management system?

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