What's the Role of Technology in Continuous Improvement?

If you think expensive technology changes are the gatekeepers for continuous improvement, think again.

I have often been asked whether continuous improvement is possible without technology change, and I tell people that CI is about making changes to business processes, not necessarily technology. Without a doubt, technology change is often an enabler that allows CI to occur, but it is not a prerequisite since it is often working on different aspects of the business. We tend to think of technology change in relation to things like information systems, new product developments and refinements or radical new production processes, while CI is focused more on changes to our business processes.

It doesn't matter if you work in a manufacturing or service business; we all work with processes that are specific to our area of the business, and this is precisely the appropriate place to employ CI tools and techniques.

CI is focused on quality, cost and delivery of products or services and improving the business processes that control these elements of our business. We can usually make improvement to these processes without any need for technology change to make substantial gains in these areas. Think about the CI projects you have worked on in the past, and ask yourself how many of them required a change in technology to accomplish. In my experience, the answer is very few.

In some instances, changes to your ERP or MRP system may be required to accomplish improvements, such as going from a distributed batch manufacturing system to a demand pull system with visual signals. Still, this generally doesn't require a product redesign or a radical new manufacturing process. In service industries, including medical-care delivery, processes such as admissions may require some changes to the information system used at the hospital or clinic to streamline the paperwork. A new visual scheduling system for areas such as radiology, the lab or operating rooms may require changes in information flows to coordinate activities with other departments or personnel, but it's usually not radical change and certainly doesn't require a rocket scientist to achieve.

Suppose you worked in accounts payable at a retailer and wanted to improve the efficiency of your department by reducing paperwork so you could handle seasonal volume increases without hiring temporary workers. Moving from the classic triple-match process to handling payment approvals to regular suppliers on an exception basis would certainly require some changes to your accounting system software. But, again, these are not radical changes that should prevent you from using CI to change the business process.

My point here is that using CI tools and techniques to focus on changing business processes and achieve gains in quality, cost and delivery does not usually require major technology changes. Technology is most often focused on functions such as product design, manufacturing or service delivery process design or on information system technology, not on the business processes used in these areas. The business processes can be substantially improved through the use of CI tools and techniques without requiring substantial changes in the technologies employed.

What you should not do is allow yourself to be stopped from your goal of continuous improvement by others throwing out the red herring that you can't do anything because it would require substantial changes to the technologies used in your business. It usually doesn't, so don't let arguments that they will stop you on your CI journey.

Ralph Keller is president of the AME Institute and former president of the Association for Manufacturing Excellence.

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