There are various different pathways to ongoing improvement and ultimately excellence.

They can be roughly divided into two.

  1. Large structural or technological changes produce a large step change in the operation or efficiency of the operation.
  2. Ongoing small steps allow the business to keep lifting the bar towards a goal of excellence or world-class performance.


Large steps

These are generally scary for the staff. You risk losing their commitment. Involving them along the way will help them to understand why large change is necessary. Listen and act on their concerns. You may need to help them through the grief stages of losing something they know and are comfortable with. As they move into unknown territory, they will discover the benefits both to them personally and to the business from the new way of doing things. The cost of not doing this well can result in change failing to deliver any benefits. You could find internal terrorists actively working against it.


Small steps

These, on the other hand, are generally not scary and can be a hugely positive experience for those involved. Particularly if the changes are their idea. Once you start encouraging ideas for small step improvements and act on them, you get in an upward cycle of improvement. This is where staff become part of the solution and not the problem. Lean manufacturing is a common-sense way of thinking that I have had good results with in the past. Energise the staff and identify opportunities to improve the way they do things.

Humans are hard-wired to want to do things faster and better. Think about your early morning routine. Are you mildly miffed when you do things in the wrong order and it takes longer or is harder? Continuous improvement is about harnessing this and formalising the best practice.  If everyone does it the same way, we get the same result every time we do it.

The surprisingly simple ‘5 why’ method identifies the root cause of the issue that needs improvement. You ask ‘why?’ 5 times. The answer to the last question is the question for the next. Just like a small child who keeps asking ‘why?’, it allows you to peel back layers of the obvious to get to the crux of an issue.




The outer casing on a wire has worn off potentially making the body of a machine “live”.

  1. Why? Because the wire was hanging down and rubbing on the chain.
  2. Why was the wire was hanging down? Because it had come loose.
  3. Why was it loose? Because the holder got damaged in a jam-up.
  4. Why was there a jam-up? Because the machine was overdue for a service and the tool was blunt.
  5. Why was the machine past its service point? We normally just wait for it to start having jam-ups before we do a service!


Short-term solution (preventative action): Change the wire and put it back in place. Sharpen the tool.

Medium-term (corrective action): Set up a system to remind us to regularly service the machine and sharpen the tool.

Long-term (corrective action): Get a supervisor to check that we are actually doing the regular service and tool sharpening maintenance.


Reduced risk of having a major accident.

Staff are happier because the machine runs better for longer, has improved productivity and there are reduced waste and downtime. Most importantly, someone in management is actually listening to them!



So often we just fix the wire, think ‘that was close’, move on and hope that it does not happen again! That’s a missed opportunity to save money and improve health & safety procedures along with morale.

By Russell Bacon