Prepare for the unknown with continuous improvement

 

By Chris Green, Kepner-Tregoe

How do you face unknown situations in business and operations—especially those you can’t anticipate? Outages, technical incidents, compliance issues and environmental disasters cause significant disruptions resulting in lost productivity and lost revenue. The key to responding to these unsettling situations is by adopting a continuous-improvement mindset that prepares your staff and business processes in structured ways. A continuous improvement mindset focuses energy and attention on developing understanding and taking deliberate action.

In risk-management disciplines, issues are categorized as knowns, known-unknowns and unknown-unknowns. You can plan for the known and you can learn what you don’t know. It is the third category that is most problematic because you aren’t even aware of the unknown-unknowns and they will take you by surprise. But you can prepare. Companies are like living organisms, they evolve. Part of this evolution is responding and adapting effectively to situations.

Most people think of continuous improvement as a process related to manufacturing or IT service operations. This is correct; continuous improvement is a process. But it is also a mindset – a way of thinking about situations, systems and processes as an evolutionary journey, not just the current state. Continuous-improvement processes provide a mechanism to respond when change is needed. A continuous-improvement mindset helps you identify needed changes before a crisis develops.

Recognizing change

A continuous-improvement mindset involves constantly surveying your environment to understand when changes occur, assess their effects and determine how best to respond and adapt to those changes. Environmental forces may include, for example, technology advances, geopolitical situations, regulatory changes, shifting customer preferences or changes in market conditions (there are many others). These forces are always present and changing, regardless of the industry.  

By applying a continuous-improvement mindset, you will ask “what forces represent threats that must be defended?” You also will consider “what forces represent opportunities for competitive advantage, productivity and profitability?” By understanding the active forces in your environment, you can anticipate situations that will benefit if you take preventive or opportunistic action.  

Integrating mindset and process

Instead of reacting to change, a continuous-improvement mindset helps you seek change and proactively prioritize, plan and act deliberately. Continuous-improvement processes provide the tools and structure to respond to opportunities and threats in the environment and to take actions that lead to desirable outcomes. While external forces will always be pushing and pulling at your organization, not all of them justify a response. Continuous-improvement processes help you focus on the activities with the greatest potential for impact by providing a means to capture, classify and prioritize problems and opportunities. By first addressing the most important items, more resources are available to address high-priority future issues.

Preparing for the unknown

It is impractical to anticipate complete understanding and control of all the unknown forces affecting your organization. There will always be unknown-unknowns (surprises). The benefit of a continuous-improvement mindset is that change is expected and embraced as an opportunity to learn. If you assume your organization and your environment are evolving, you are better prepared to embrace the unknown-unknowns and to not only prevail but to convert them into opportunities for competitive advantage.

Read more about Continuous Improvement from Kepner-Tregoe

Continuous Improvement and Simplification

How front-line employees can take on a leadership role in continuous improvement

 

About Kepner-Tregoe

Kepner-Tregoe has empowered thousands of companies to solve millions of problems. KT provides a data-driven, consistent, scalable approach to clients in Operations, Manufacturing, IT Service Management, Technical Support, and Learning & Development. We empower you to solve problems. KT provides a unique combination of skill development and consulting services, designed specifically to reveal the root cause of problems and permanently address organizational challenges. Our approach to problem solving will deliver measurable results to any company looking to improve quality and effectiveness while reducing overall costs.