Continuous Improvement Tools for your QHSE Management

Continuous improvement tools are important within QHSE management, especially when you and the organization have a mindset of continuous improvement. Using the right tool for the job can help improve productivity, reduce errors, and increase profitability overall. 

There are many different ways to improve business performance. But how do you choose the right tool for the job? We look at a range of tools that can help you manage processes, streamline quality control, and improve efficiency.

Where to Start With Continuous Improvement?

At first glance, an ongoing improvement initiative may seem so complex and overwhelming that it may be difficult to start at all. Adopting the continuous improvement mindset means that you will be constantly making improvements. Start small and make those changes bigger as every employee from the shop floor to the boardroom begins to understand that change is how the business will evolve and increase its value.

Continuous Improvement Tools and Methodologies

Over time, numerous tools, techniques, and systems have been developed to help improve performance. They are meant to provide businesses with a framework so that they can avoid creating their own from scratch. It allows them to learn from others’ best practices and leverage what has already been proven to work. 

There are a number of different strategies and methodologies that can be used. You can use several continuous improvement techniques within an organization because different departments or locations may benefit from different approaches. Here’s an overview of the six best continuous improvement tools available.

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 organization using a structured framework. If you want to improve business processes, efficiency, or productivity, then the PDCA cycle can help.

The framework gives front line teams a four-step guide for executing incremental improvement practices. It enables them to avoid making the same mistakes repeatedly and is commonly used in lean manufacturing. 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.

One of the key advantages of PDCA is that it’s easy to understand and remember. The acronym can quickly turn into a mantra that is repeated by everyone in the business and used by everyone in the business. Some companies put up posters explaining the process while others print it on mouse pads and coffee mugs. This gives employees a visual reminder and encourages them to adopt it as a consistent part of their work routine. 

The 4-step system doesn’t require weeks of training to learn; it can be summarized quickly in a matter of minutes. Managers can then track progress and help staff to learn on the go by following up with them. This approach to coaching doesn’t require a lot of training.

PDCA tool Image of the blog continuous improvement tools2. Gemba Walks

Gemba walks can be especially useful for continuous improvement. They allow you to tap into the company’s most valuable resource: its employees. The most innovative improvements often come from the employees working on the front lines and solving problems on a daily basis. They have an in-depth understanding of their particular area and are able to provide solutions.

Managers who understand that the best way for them to capture these valuable insights from their employees is to get out of the office and into the “Gemba”. This is where things actually happen, like manufacturing or product development. Gemba walks are informal interactions between managers and employees at the location where they actually do their work. It allows for observation of real-life scenarios or the actual production process, which helps leaders understand what’s actually going on. This casual yet accurate form of data collection can be a powerful tool for companies.

Regular gemba walks also help improve employee relationships and create a greater focus on continuous improvements. They provide a framework for regular interaction and create a habit of consistent feedback collection. However, it‘s important not to use these opportunities to reprimand staff, as it will make them less likely to share their thoughts. This approach is best for collecting data which can then be used to inform future decisions.

You may have noticed that this is a tool that was specifically designed to gather feedback from people. It’s an internal data collection process that allows management to tap into the vast expertise of their employees. It’s not an “end-to-end” solution for improving business processes because it doesn’t help implement or measure them. It is simply meant as a way to collect ideas and suggestions that can be used later. If you’re going to try this approach then it’s really important that you have some kind of mechanism in place for acting on what you learn. You can use it in combination with other tools on this list or a follow-up process of your own.

3. The 5 Whys

The 5 whys is one of the most effective continuous improvement tools for root-cause analysis. It can help you identify the source of a particular problem and see beyond the surface issue. By asking “Why?” several times in a row, you can get to the root cause of a problem. This allows you to come up with potential solutions to the problem instead of just treating the symptom. It also helps teams move beyond blaming others and finger pointing to find the root cause.

Using the 5 whys technique can also help you to determine the relationships between cause and effect (ideal for creating a fishbone diagram). It’s an easy-to-use tool that everyone can use without the need for complex statistical analysis like data regression and hypothesis testing. Businesses may find themselves asking “Why?” a few more times or fewer than before to get to the root cause of an issue. However, this approach is a foolproof way of getting to the core of any problem that isn’t working.

However, just like the gemba walk approach isn’t an end-to-­end solution, this isn’t either. It’s an effective way to get to the heart of an issue and identify opportunities for improvement. It doesn’t help with implementing any ideas or providing a structure for coming up solutions. It’s designed to help businesses identify the root cause of their problems instead of being distracted by surface-level answers. It’s a very useful tool to use, but it needs to be combined with other tools to really achieve meaningful results.

4. The 3Ms – Muri, Mura, and Muda

The 3Ms were identified as part of the Toyota lean production system. They refer to three types of deviations that cause problems for companies: These issues can manifest in any department, including manufacturing, research and development (R&D), or marketing. The 3Ms are Japanese words that are usually transliterated into English 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, inventory, waiting, overproduction, or defects.

When pursuing a lean management approach, the 3Ms is one of the most effective continuous improvement tools for identifying and eliminating waste. Lean management can help operations become leaner by highlighting issues or opportunities for them to become leaner. It’s helpful for total quality management (TQM) and promoting the adoption of lean practices that create value for customers.

It can be helpful when working through the 3Ms to start by focusing on one at a time. If you’re looking for examples of muri or overburden, you’ll be able to identify areas that need additional resources or could benefit from improved planning. Finding the sources of Mura or irregularities in your products will facilitate the next step of decreasing Muda or waste. Other than reducing waste, it’s also important for you to consider other sources of wasted time and resources. With this approach, you’ll be able to focus on the elements of your business that drive customer value and eliminate the wasteful aspects that drain your resources unnecessarily.

5. Continuous Improvement Platform

There are now many online tools that help businesses improve their operations. They tend to leverage other improvement tools and combine their strengths into one easy-to use solution. Online platforms allow companies to easily capture employee ideas and feedback. Some have built-in guides that walk people through continuous improvement processes (such as the PDCA cycle and the 5 whys), empowering them to take action.

A continuous improvement platform also helps make analysis and reporting easy. You don’t need to spend time creating complex spreadsheets when you can generate instant reports. It helps you to see how your business is progressing towards its continuous improvement goals and how productivity, profitability, or quality are being affected.

Digital solutions also help to free up the flow of communication. Because everything is stored in one place, there are no bottl­enecks to slow down any step in the process. Employees can see the progress of their ideas or share updates on tests they’re running. This is a powerful step to removing silos between different departments and creating a culture of collaboration. It also removes the responsibility of ownership from specific team members and makes them more accountable for making things happen. The improved visibility leads people to want to be part of the team. They’re inspired by the idea of making things better for others.

continuous improvement platform tool Image of the blog continuous improvement tools

6. Value Stream Mapping

Value stream mapping (VSM) shows exactly where value is added and helps you decide which areas may need to be improved. This strategy was originally developed to improve manufacturing processes but it can be used in other industries too.

To create a value proposition map, it’s best if you get together a small team consisting of leaders from several different departments within your company, including marketing, sales, product development, customer service, etc.

You can use value maps to simplify the process by creating them at different levels, for example, you can create value maps at the company, manufacturing plant, and production process levels. It may seem easier to start optimising from the bottom up but it’s actually the other way around. If you start to optimise one process within the facility, you may sub-optimise another. So, in this case, it would be better to start at a facility level.

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