Continual Improvement 101: How to Make a Better You

continual improvement

One of the taglines of my blog is continual improvement. It’s not because it’s a cool-sounding catch phrase. It’s because the continual improvement process is a core component of my everyday life, and has been for more than 10 years. Okay, yeah- it’s a cool-sounding catch phrase, too.

So what is continual improvement, what are its benefits, and how can you use it to positively impact various aspects of your life?

Continual Improvement – Origins

The Continual Improvement Process, also known as the Continuous Improvement Process or CIP, traces its origins to the post-WWII era in Japan. As Japan transitioned into a technology and manufacturing powerhouse, it began to employ a practice called Kaizen, or “change for better.” Kaizen teaches us to make ‘small steps’ of change in order to improve processes, reduce waste, and achieve quality targets. The original tenets of Kaizen gave birth to modern CIP, Six Sigma and Lean methodologies which are prevalent throughout the business world today.

Continual improvement can be thought of a form of incrementalism. By taking small, incremental steps toward a target, we can attain large goals through seemingly small actions.

whataboutbob
Baby steps!

How the Continual Improvement Process Works

I gave a brief introduction to CIP when talking about My Path to FI, but I’ll rehash the basics here. Continual improvement is a cyclical process that depends on incremental adjustments and constant feedback to achieve meaningful change.

The four main steps of CIP are as follows:

  1. Plan – determine what it is that you want to change, and come up with an idea for improvement.
  2. Do – put your plan into action.
  3. Check – evaluate whether your idea/plan had a positive impact toward achieving your goal.
  4. Act – if the change worked, keep pushing! If it didn’t, figure out why and try again.

Continual Improvement is based on the following principles:

  • small, incremental changes are easier to implement than large changes
  • these small changes can have a great impact over time
  • introspection is critical to the process
  • this is a never-ending (continual) cycle

Ray Dalio, the founder of Bridgewater Associates and one of my favorite business figures, borrowed heavily from the continual improvement process when he designed his 5-Step Process of Personal Evolution. I’ve covered Dalio’s use of the process in his book Principles in a dedicated post you can read here.

So now you’re probably asking, “how can I use continual improvement to incrementally improve my life?” Well I’m glad you asked! Here are some ideas for putting CIP to use, including some tips I’ve learned along the way.

Continual Improvement in Your Everyday Life

In Your Career

It shouldn’t be a surprise to find out that CIP is effective in the workplace. That’s why it was developed! However, I’m not talking about using continual improvement to boost product yield or reduce waste. You can use it to become a more effective employee.

Try this: make a list of priorities that would help you be more valuable at your job. Now choose one priority and think about creating actionable items centered on achieving that goal. Come up with a plan to execute those items. Put those plans into action, making the necessary adjustments until your goals start to become realized. Finally, make these changes part of your daily routine, and move on to the next priority.

For example, I used to struggle to complete smaller tasks which I deemed unimportant. My PI says that I’m a ‘big picture’ type of person, and that I don’t like to get bogged down in the details of my job. I somewhat agree with this, especially as it relates to mundane ‘busy work’. To counter this problem, I started putting aside 10-15 minutes at the end of every day to take care of these tasks. By recognizing that 4:30 meant “do the things you hate to do,” I was able to accomplish the things that I struggled to do in the past.

In Your Personal Life

CIP can also be applied to our personal lives. One of my most important personal goals is to create as much quality time as possible for spending with Mrs. BF and baby BF. This is easier said than done. Between our careers, my brewery side hustle, and various extracurricular activities, it is sometimes difficult to be with my family as much as I’d like to.

I made the following changes in order to create more time for my family:

  • Drop out of one softball league to free up Sundays
  • Use PTO for brewery days whenever possible (instead of weekends)
  • Head to the brewery at 6 AM so I’m home before dinner
  • Put off blogging until late night when everyone sleeps (didn’t work)
  • Get up earlier than everyone for personal/blogging time
  • Prep Baby BF’s weekday meals on Sunday to save time on weeknights

I didn’t make these changes all at once, and many of them didn’t work the first time I tried them. I needed to keep tweaking my daily routine in order to get the necessary result. Over the course of the past 6 months, many small changes has resulted in less distractions and more quality time with the people that matter.

Queen of the Melons

In Your Financial Life

I believe continual improvement has its greatest impact when applied to personal finance. This is because there are so many factors that make up one’s financial picture. Each of these small factors can be modulated until the desired outcome is attained.

As you will read in most PF blogs, the key to financial independence is to maximize earnings and minimize spending (and invest the difference). Both sides of this equation can be attacked with a CIP methodology.

Maximize Earnings:

  • Improve your performance at your current job, maybe by taking on more responsibility
  • Ask for a raise!
  • Find another opportunity within your company, or look outside
  • Educate yourself – college courses or certifications
  • Start a side hustle or 3
  • Sell the crap that’s cluttering your home
  • Tutor your neighbor’s kid
  • Walk your neighbor’s dog
  • Tutor your neighbor’s dog
  • Rent a room in your house

Minimize Spending:

  • Cancel unused subscriptions
  • Bring lunch to work
  • Call your internet/cable/insurance provider and negotiate a better deal
  • Better yet, cut the cord
  • Automate your deposits, transfers, and investments
  • Go to the beach instead of the movies
  • Host parties instead of going out to dinner with friends
  • Brew your own beer!
  • Downsize your home/car/lifestyle
  • Use your public library for books, movies, and free entertainment

The lists can go on forever. The good thing is, there are so many ways to earn more or spend less, you can choose the plan that works for you. If you can’t live without cable, then keep it. Find another way to save $50/month. If you really must have a Monster Truck, save some money on gas by occasionally riding your bike to work or carpooling. The magic of the continual improvement process is that there is no blueprint. The only stipulation is you try to progress in the right direction, using feedback from each small change to find ways to improve.

Chances are that you employ some form of continual improvement without even realizing it. We learn something new every day, and we often internalize this new knowledge to help ourselves in the future. Being more conscious about continual improvement will accelerate the process.  

Let me know how you use continual improvement in your life in the comment section below. Cheers! 

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