Characteristics of successful entrepreneurs: Continuous improvement

April 26, 2016

Part four of a ten part series. Check out the previous Characteristics of an Entrepreneur posts.

‘Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection.’ - Mark Twain

Entrepreneurs are always looking for ways to improve their businesses. But the truly successful entrepreneurs—those who rise above the rest—are far more conscious about it. Rather than waiting for inspiration to strike, they make the effort to consider ways in which they can continuously improve every aspect of their business, no matter how small.

Preparing for the Unexpected

Part of continuous improvement is preparing for unexpected situations. Ensure that your business has the correct type of liability insurance, and keep a certificate of insurance, or COI on file. If a prospective client asks for evidence that you are insured, you’ll be able to provide it on the spot. Having your COI ready in those moments will inspire confidence from your clients.

Kaizen: Continuous improvement as a Business Strategy

The idea of continuous improvement comes from the Japanese concept of kaizen, which roughly translates to ‘good change.’ Kaizen is a business strategy that became popular in Japan after World War II and spread to the rest of the world. Often used in large manufacturing companies, its principles can be applied to the entrepreneurial business as well. The concept is simple: Each and every person in the organization is tasked, as part of their regular responsibilities, with identifying and implementing improvements to workplace processes. The improvement can be as small as moving the location of a bin or screws to a more convenient location near an assembly line, or as large as an overhaul of hiring practices in a human resources department. Continuous improvement works because it recognizes that the people who are doing the work will often have ideas on how to do the work more efficiently and less expensively. The culture of continuous improvement empowers everyone in the company to identify and implement changes that can improve outcomes.

Add continuous improvement to your business plan

There are two ways to consciously continuously improve. The first way is to think, as you perform each task necessary to keep your business running, of ways you could improve that specific task. When an idea pops into your head, implement it. If it turns out not to be an improvement, go back to the old way. But never stop thinking of ways you could change the way you do that particular task. The second way to continuously improve is to choose two or three—or more if you have time—processes that are integral to your business. If you manufacture a product, the first one might be your manufacturing process. If you provide a service, the first one might be the way you identify prospective clients.

A Step by Step Guide to Continuous Improvement

1. Document the process that you currently use. You don’t need to get too detailed, but write down each step, who is responsible and how it generally gets done.

2. Look at each step and ask yourself: Is it necessary? Is it efficient? Is it in the right place in the process? (There should be no backtracking or duplication.) Is there a better way to do it?

3. When you find a better way to do something, write it down.

4. When you’ve gone through all the steps, go back again, substituting any steps you’ve revised along the way.

5. When you’ve reviewed the process with the new steps, put them into action. Once you’ve put new steps or processes to work, you’ll want to review to see how they’re working. Some of your ideas will work, others will not. This is all part of the process, so don’t get discouraged. If you try something that doesn’t work, check to see if there’s any part of the improvement that is effective, and implement that. Disregard the changes that are ineffective and move on to the next task.

Get everyone involved 

If you have employees, the culture of continuous improvement should extend to them. Toyota is famous for creating this culture in a very large organization. Every employee is challenged to offer suggestions for continuous improvement in their own position as well as the company as a whole. Make sure your employees know which improvements they can implement on their own and which will require approval. And make sure that those suggestions that require approval actually need it. Requiring your employees to get approval for improvements to the tasks they do every day can stifle the process.

Your business is not too small

Continuous improvement may sound like it’s only for big businesses, and, in fact, many large corporations use it very successfully. But it can also be implemented in smaller organizations. All businesses have processes, whether they are documented or not. If you are a marketing consultant, you probably approach prospective clients in approximately the same way, time after time.

You may peruse their website, taking note of the way they present themselves to their prospects. Then you may email the head of marketing to offer your services. If you get a positive response, you may refer them to your website, and then follow up in a few days to try to schedule a meeting. This is your process. To apply the principles of continuous improvement to this process, list each step. Then review each step to see where it could be improved. Perhaps, instead of emailing the head of marketing, you pick up the phone and call. Instead of referring them to your website, you give a brief overview of your services and ask for the meeting on that initial phone call. Once you’ve tried approaching prospects in this new way a few times, it will be obvious if the new method is more effective than the way you used to do it. If it is, use it every time. If it’s not, go back to the old way, and look at what else you can change.

How do you continuously improve your business?