Improvement is about how you can be better. Better than you are now, better than competitors are, and better than you thought you could be. It is the process of closing the gap between where you are and where you could be. It is a strategic imperative but with an operational focus. Improvement is about getting your hands dirty with the mechanics of how you do things. It is about repairing what is going wrong and enhancing what seems to be acceptable. And to make a success of repairing, enhancing and generally improving the way you do things, you need tools. A skilled craftsperson cannot function effectively without appropriate tools and no manager, no matter how intelligent and motivated, can make their way of working better without the tried and tested improvement techniques that have proved themselves in the best organizations.
But tools need a toolbox. Which is why almost all authorities recommend fitting improvement tools and techniques into some overarching framework; some structure that will clarify where and when any particular tool will be at its most effective. And by far the most common improvement framework, used by practitioners and academics alike (a rare consensus) is the idea of the improvement cycle. This is the idea that improvement can best be represented by a never-ending process of repeatedly questioning and re questioning the detailed working of a how things are done.
There are many versions of the improvement cycle. Some are proprietary models owned by consultancy companies. Others derive from the many improvement ‘gurus’ that have contributed to the practice of improvement. But, generally, they follow four stages.
First, gain Insight into the real nature of the problem to be solved.
Second, conduct an Analysis of what needs to be improved.
Third, search out the Options for change that will lead to improvement.
Fourth, execute the Actions that will make improvement happen.
After which, the cycle starts again, gaining insight into the problems that are preventing further improvement. This point is particularly important – ‘the cycle starts again’. It is only by accepting the continuous improvement philosophy, that this cycles quite literally never stops, that improvement will become embedded in every person’s way of working.