Continuous improvement is defined as ‘an ongoing effort to improve products, services or processes’. In a nutshell, this is my passion, motivating and guiding me through work and life.
It’s difficult to always be improving, but there are some principles that if you keep in mind, will help you on that journey.
The more ownership and freedom you have when you’re working, the more creativity you can bring to your role and the better job you can do. Freedom isn’t something you’re just given, it has to be earned through experience and hard work, which can be from your previous jobs. It can be easy to dismiss the idea of freedom as a pipe dream, who really has control over what they do every day at work, unless they’re in a position of power? There are deadlines to meet, projects to complete, routine reports to distribute, orders to fulfil, how can you take control over any of that? The secrets are organisation, asking questions and giving feedback!
When your tasks are organised, you know what you need to do next. Make sure to keep track of all the details you need (it’s best to have a central reference point for all of this). When you are given a new task or project, ask enough questions so that you can take control of what you’re doing. Ask when it’s due, or when each stage should be complete. Ask when they expect it to be ready for initial review, how long they think it should take. Ask if it should take priority over any other projects or tasks.
Give feedback on the responses you receive. If the deadline doesn’t seem realistic, say so, and explain why. If you would have to push back on another task or project, feedback on this and ask how to prioritise.
Nothing is sacred in the modern workplace, you have to be prepared for anything and everything to change. That doesn’t mean that you don’t feel any resistance, my initial internal reaction is pretty much always resistance, but I push myself past that. Being flexible means that when change comes along, the first response that you give out is to ask for more details of the change to try and understand it.
Some changes are easier to accept than others, priorities on tasks, deadlines, new team members. But then someone comes along and tells you that something you’ve put effort into doesn’t work or is wrong, those are the hard changes to accept. The harder the change, the more you should try to understand it, because that way you make it easier to accept.
Numerous scientific studies have shown that taking breaks improves productivity. It’s counter-intuitive and hard to accept, so naturally everyone reads the results, gets all excited and then promptly dismisses them, “Oh yeah, it would nice to take a break, but this thing is urgent”. Everyone is busy all the time and pushing yourself to work through your breaks is okay every now and then, it’s when you let that become the norm that your productivity starts dropping.
The main thing is to always do your best to take your allocated lunch break away from your work area, if you can get out of the building completely, even better! This is one of the reasons I prefer not to take in food to microwave or make sandwiches; if you have food waiting for you in the office fridge it can be tempting to stay in the office and eat at the desk, but if you have to leave the office to get something to eat, then once you are out you are more inclined to stay out. This doesn’t have to be only for those with money to spare eating out, I buy sandwiches for under £2 if I’m feeling a bit tight.
Taking breaks throughout the day helps as well, although it can be uncomfortable. For example, today I sat in front of my computer with a file open and just let my mind wander for five (or ten) minutes. I wanted to make some changes and had to ponder how to implement them, so I sat back in my chair and let my mind wander rather than trying to force something to happen. The result? 3 hours later I had reduced the report from over 25 worksheets down to one with a filter and dynamic formulas that changed based on what was visible.
Over time we get better and better at our job. Previously complex tasks are completed on auto-pilot, but are we any more productive as a result? One of Taichi-Ohno’s methods to increase productivity when a process was running smoothly was to reduce capacity by 10%, if the process still went smoothly he would keep reducing capacity by 10% until they hit an obstacle and then they would challenge themselves to overcome the obstacle and resume the smooth flow. We can use this same method with our regular tasks as well, and a 10% reduction in capacity isn’t too scary of a target to hit, you may even be able to cut much more than that on your first try.
To most obvious way to reduce capacity is by cutting the amount of time we spend working on something. Once you are familiar enough with a task to start reducing the capacity, it’s important to know how much capacity it currently uses up, capacity being time in this example. So if something takes 30 minutes to do, can it be done in 27? Try it and see! If it seems to be doable in 27 minutes, cut again, to 24. At some point, you’re going to run into problems and that’s when you need to look at the current processes and operations and address what’s holding them up.
Following on from the previous principle, when your tasks are easy and you can’t improve them any more, you need to challenge yourself. Growth comes from struggle, and struggle comes from being properly challenged. Challenges don’t have to be big, they just have to be slightly outside of your normal workflow and expectations, preferably right on the edge of comfort. When you first start a role, there is usually a great deal of discomfort as you learn about your responsibilities and how to fulfil them. There is always something difficult to learn, whether it’s the tasks themselves or even just getting to know your team. Going through that helps you grow and develop, and as difficult as it may be, you come out better off after that.
While it’s important to recognise your accomplishment and take some time to settle into the new flow, don’t let go of that motivation you had to learn everything you needed to. Pick up a new project or reach out to people you work with to find out what can be better. The more you stretch yourself, the more you grow, and as long as you keep following the initial principle of taking ownership by giving feedback and asking questions, you will continue reaping the rewards of challenging yourself.
These principles aren’t set in stone, I may change them later as I develop and grow, but that’s it from me for now!