What is Continuous Improvement?

Continuous Improvement. Another buzz word? Worthless Lean terminology? I don’t think so. Yes, the term has been used for a couple decades now by Lean gurus and companies like Toyota, but I want to ask you to think of ‘Continuous Improvement’ from a real world, practical, and much-needed perspective. Forget about Lean thinking for now, let’s just think of Continuous Improvement as “common sense.” Let’s think of it as Business 101: the basics of proper business management.

We have all heard the phrase, “If you are not growing, you’re dying,” when relating to business. I am positive this is true. But what exactly is growing? I suppose it could mean building a bigger shop, or taking in more revenue compared to the prior year; but to me, growing means getting a little better every day at what we do. Companies that take this approach are miles ahead of the competition, even while only making small incremental improvements over long periods of time. Kind of like the story of the Tortoise and the Hare, I suppose. These companies put Continuous Improvement at the top of their priority list and they make it an integral part of their culture.

Culture

Culture is another popular word these days, and like Continuous Improvement, Culture is much more than a buzzword, in fact it is the “soul” of your business! Whether you have created the culture you want, or it has created itself, your company has a culture, either good or bad. Culture could best be described as the accumulated beliefs, values, and behaviors of your team. The culture can be influenced by how leadership interacts with the team, the personalities that are hired into the team, and of course the level of understanding the team has as it relates to the purpose or mission of the company. Your job as a leader is to ensure that you constantly feed the culture with the right stuff and weed out the bad stuff.

A Continuous Improvement Culture could best be described as a culture that makes getting a little better every day an integral part of the team’s mission. What the team “stands for.” A Continuous Improvement Culture has strong leadership that encourages dialogue and actions every day that lead to its mission of continuously improving. A winning team such as this is always pursuing perfection, while knowing that perfection will never be attained.

Think for a moment about professional auto racing. There are a handful of teams in NASCAR and other forms of auto racing that are in the chase for the big trophy nearly every year. Many other teams try to emulate the winning teams, buying all the same equipment, hiring the best drivers, and spending huge sums of money in order to beat them. But all the money in the world cannot replace the years of small improvements made by the winning teams. That is the main reason they win and the same reason you too can win if you embrace the daily discipline of incremental improvement efforts.

Enjoyment of the Journey

When you are engaged in a Continuous Improvement Culture, change and improvement initiatives don’t take on the same dreaded overwhelming feeling as they do in traditionally run companies. At a traditionally run company, change is something extra you have to do that is not viewed as part of the normal job. In shops with a Continuous Improvement Culture, change is welcome because it is considered part of the job. Workplace enjoyment can be found because everyone feels as though they are contributing to something bigger than themselves and the small incremental improvements are celebrated and enjoyed as part of their never-ending journey together.

Practical Applications

How do you go about creating a culture like this? Even though the subject could take volumes to write about, here are three fundamentals to get you started.

  1. Hold regular improvement meetings.

A great way to get started on your journey is to hold regular meetings to discuss what to improve and how to improve it. Most shops have what I like to call “low hanging fruit.” These are problems that repeatedly pop up and cause a lot of pain for everyone. Most often, I find many of these problems are a result of a deeper rooted problem that you must first identify in order to fix. For example, at most traditional collision repair shops, Friday afternoons are still a nightmare with missing parts, cars that won’t take an alignment and so on. The key here is to identify at a deeper level what is causing these problems to occur and let the team help identify the problems in order to keep them engaged in being a fellow problem solver.

For a shop with a lot of problems, you could hold these meetings once or twice a week. For most shops once a month, plus regular follow up visits will suffice. Everyone gets to contribute at these meetings. At first you may have difficulty getting the team to engage in the conversation, and it is understandable if they have never been asked to participate in such a meeting before. They may be skeptical, but don’t let that deter you for one minute; most people will come around when they know you are serious about making positive changes for everyone.

Good leadership skills are essential and great listening skills are part of it. Hear everyone out and never tell someone their idea is dumb! Equally important, as a leader, you have a responsibility to hold everyone accountable to the agreed follow-up activities, especially your own. The team will never take you seriously if you promise changes that never come. One of the biggest things you can do to damage a culture is poor integrity.

  1. Make failure a positive learning tool.

“So you screwed up, no big deal!” I bet not too many of you hear this phrase very often. I wish however, that you would. The famous author Ken Blanchard is credited with saying, “Failure is feedback, and feedback is the breakfast of champions.” People that reach the highest levels of their professions, crave feedback and even criticism. Sadly, most people are terrified of being caught making a mistake and will do plenty to cover it up, then finger pointing ensues the moment a mistake is caught. This is no way to build a culture! If you want to build a powerful Continuous Improvement Culture, you have to bring mistakes and problems out into the open where they can be seen and dealt with. This can and has been done successfully at companies without all the finger pointing and hurt feelings through a combination of excellent communication skills, and by letting people know it is okay to make mistakes as long as the team can learn from the mistake. A great tool to learn from mistakes is through the use of a journal or log book to document problems as they occur. For minor problems, discuss them in your continuous improvement meetings or address them immediately if you feel it would be better. For serious problems or mistakes, use them as a teachable moment and address them right then and there, then follow up often to ensure the corrections are in place to avoid the problems being repeated. I like my clients to use a “failure log” that is on a clip board hanging in the reassembly area of the shop. Assembly seems to be where a large percentage of failures are discovered, even though the root of the problem is usually caused well upstream in the process.

  1. Measure progress and offer feedback.

If there was no scoreboard at Basketball games, people would quit watching and the players would quickly tire of running up and down the court. As with sports, in business, we also want our teams to be engaged. But in business we don’t always do a very good job of keeping our teams engaged by keeping score. People want to feel as though they are contributing to the team’s success and the best way to do that is by providing them with the feedback and progress measurements they crave.

Along with sharing key performance indicators such as cycle time, customer satisfaction, etc., also provide measurements whenever possible on your specific improvement initiatives. For example, if the team is engaged in an event that will reduce the number of supplements, then measure and offer feedback on supplement frequency. If the team is working on reducing the number of re-paints due to quality defects, keep track of that and share it. For the team to take leadership seriously, the score needs to be available to them consistently and accurately. Give them the numbers every day, if you can, during the morning meetings.

  1. Set realistic goals.

A mistake to avoid is setting the bar too low, or too high. Shop leaders will quickly discover they are losing engagement from the team because the goals leadership set are either too high and unrealistic, or the team feels they don’t have any control over the KPIs they are being held accountable to. As mentioned earlier, small incremental improvements are the key to winning. It’s great to set long-term big-time goals, but remember the only way you will reach them is through smaller bite-sized actions taken through intermediate goals and daily tasks.

  1. Plan continuous Education.

Continuous Improvement is only possible by also using Continuous Education. Far too often people will make many advancements in their business until they run into an obstacle caused by a lack of skill or knowledge and they give up. The lack of knowledge, or a skill, is also a reason many people never even start. This is a shame. On your journey of Continuous Improvement, you will encounter many challenges and you must have confidence that you will find the answers along the way. Don’t fall prey to paralysis by analysis; just start. All the information you need to succeed is out there somewhere, you can find it if you try.

Conclusion

Never in the history of the collision industry has there been so much needed change to deal with new technologies and the many other challenges. It is up to you whether you view this as a good thing or a bad thing. Your future depends heavily on your attitude. Personally, I think it is a very exciting time to be in the collision repair business, and it will prove to be a very prosperous time for those with the right attitude and a willingness to educate themselves on what it takes to create a Continuous Improvement Culture.