My Continuous Improvement Toolbox

Where to start?

While working with a client a few weeks ago, I pulled out some basic tools from my Continuous Improvement (CI) toolbox to visualize the problems and problem-solving.  While this client had some data, we needed to dive deeper. During our sessions, the client Team realized that we need more than just data. While data does show us the current state and helps point us in the right direction, we need to do more than look at data.  All of the Control Charts, Pareto Charts, Histograms, or bar graphs only show so much.  We must go deeper than the data. We needed to understand where we are genuinely starting.

 Before the virtual “Kaizen” workshops, I completed virtual Gemba Walks with the Team to develop the current state Value Stream Map (VSM) and cross-functional map.  During the Gemba Walks, I built relationships with the Team to learn more about them, what they do, how they felt, and what ideas they may have for improvements. I either spoke to individuals or small Teams about their part of the process.  While these sessions were all virtual, this is something that I do with all my clients either virtually or in person.

Kaizen Events

Once the mapping exercises were done, it was time to bring everyone together to start the virtual “Kaizen” workshops. During the first few sessions, we validated the VSM and cross-functional maps. While going through sessions, things the Team uncovered many problems that we later validated with the data.  During these sessions, I used the

  • 5 Whys
  • Fishbone diagrams
  • Lean Waste
  • Affinity Diagrams

 Without the Team knowing it, they are learning to use the tools effectively.   They were brainstorming and problem-solving in an open environment because they knew they were in a trusted space. They were becoming better problem-solvers.  I also remind the client Teams that they are in a safe space and that titles do not matter.  What truly matters is their voice.  While I want decision-makers to be a part of the workshops to make quick fast decisions, I do not allow the Titles to get in the way. It is not about “I”; it is about “we.”  When looking at processes end-to-end for a product, service, back office, or front office, it is not about one person.  It is about the Team! I

As I move the Team into the following stages, they are starting to see the flow.  They realize that the schedule was built to move them along through the Kaizen Process, but there is also room to be creative, learn, and get to know people better.  Together the Team was developing something better, an environment that would be productive.  It is not all about the bottom line, but employee and customer satisfaction.

Using the right tools

Depending on the situation, I will pull out the right tools from my CI Toolbox to help the Team visualize. Most of the time, the “gut” feelings are correct because we can see them in the data from the start. But there are times that the data does not show everything.  Remember, we use the data to help point us in the right direction, but sometimes you need to dig deeper to get to the “root” cause of the problem. 

While we are moving further into the workshop, the Team starts to brainstorm improvement ideas.  There are so many ways to go about this. Still, sometimes if we cannot get together in a room with sticky notes and markers, I walk the Team through Excel or a board to generate ideas.

If you have all the money in the world…

 My favorite way to start these types of sessions is to say, “Do not worry about time or money!  Imagine you have all the money in the world, how would you solve these problems? No idea is too big or too small.”  After taking away the restrictions, this gets the ideas or juices flowing.  Just about 99% of the time, my client Teams come up with great ideas!  But I only give them so much time to come up with ideas as well.  I use Time Management to keep them on track and to only think about the task at hand.  I also guide them to go deep. During these sessions, they were not there to develop the Improvement Plans, Change Management Plans, or set up a “side” projects just yet. 

After the “time” has run out during these brainstorming improvement sessions, it is time to rank! While there are different ways to categorize improvements (and even root causes) through Affinity Diagrams, things need to be rank to determine the best path forward. While I wanted the Teams to go up with great ideas, you cannot implement everything because it may either too costly or doesn’t have enough impact.  I just wanted to remove the restrictions in their minds to get things the creative juices flowing.

With all my clients, I use a ranking system of all improvements based on the benefits for their customers or clients, cost and effort, and internal benefits to the company.  While we want the customer to be happy, we also need to make sure that there is enough ROI on the improvements and internal benefits.  Who wants to implement something that makes your job harder?  That is not the point of Continuous Improvement.

Which tools should I use?

As you can see, I’ve used many different tools when working with this particular client.  My thought going into each client is that I have all kinds of tools in my toolbox to use for the right situation.  While there are many advanced tools out there in the form of statistics (ex: Minitab or other stat tools), data analytics, or Big Data, I use the right tools for the right situation. The type of tool that should be used depends on the situation, the problem you are trying to solve, the data you might have, and how well you truly know the problem.  

I started to wonder if others thought in the same manner.  A few weeks ago, I decided to ask on Social Media what everyone’s favorite Continuous Improvement tool was.  The responses I received are:


  • Process Mapping
  • Visual Management
  • 5 Whys
  • Relationship Building
  • Gemba – go to Gemba – walk the process
  • Measurement System Analysis
  • Tim Woods – Lean Wastes – Have you seen Tim Woods lately?
  • VSM
  • RACI
  • Fishbone Diagram or Ishikawa or Cause and Effect Diagram
  • 5S
  • Standard Work

Each one of these tools is a part of my toolbox. I pulled them out when the situation is right.  The ones that I do use the most are

  • Gemba and process mapping together to understand the “as is” current state and to show the future state
  • Relationship building to truly get to know my clients and their Teams
  • Value Stream Map to learn the flows and the internal and external customer experience
  • 5 Whys when process mapping to learn and to also get the root causes to the problem
  • Lean Wastes
  • Data Analysis along with Measurement System Analysis after I completed all of the above
  • Fishbone and 5 Whys for further problems solving and creativity with the Teams
  • Standard Work – this is more of an improvement but is a must before any technology
  • Time Management

Keep it simple!

Sometimes, we need the more advanced tools, but you don’t always need to start there.  Always keep things simple at first, and then move on to advance tools depending on the situation.  CI is not always about data analytics and using every tool. Sometimes, it is as simple as the Gemba walk and processing mapping with relationship-building to uncover the business and process problems. After you figure out where the problems are, you can use data to help back up the gut feeling. Of course, if the data is not 100%, it is a starting point that often leads to improvement itself by setting up the right KPIs for the process and product.

The next time you think you need to use a fancy tool, remember it sometimes best to start with the simplest and cheapest tools.  By keeping things simple, you can begin to move faster in the right direction vs. spending too much time on the wrong thing.  It is better to start small and then move into more advanced tools.  It is the power of Continuous Improvement that teaches us that!

If you would like to learn more about how I can help you improve your business, let’s set up some to talk.

“Do not worry about time or money!  Imagine you have all the money in the world, how would you solve these problems? No idea is too big or too small.”  -Lauren Hisey


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