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Marks & Spencer proves the business benefits of continuous improvement

Continuous improvement is a crucial tool in the transformation kitbag and smart executives will recognise the method itself remains a constant work in development.

That is the view of Kevin Dearing, head of continuous improvement for Marks & Spencer, who will be presenting his best practice take on agile and design thinking at RBTE 2018 in May. Dearing defines continuous improvement as an essential part of modern business management.

“It’s about how you compete as an organisation, not just in terms of the top line but also the bottom line,” he says. “It’s a method for us to continually become better than we were yesterday in an iterative manner.”

Dearing says retail executives looking to make the most of continuous improvement must draw on multiple techniques from a broad range of sectors. “Rather than looking at separate physical and digital processes, you must look at both elements hand in hand when you are aiming for continuous improvement,” he says.

Hybrid approach

Mark & Spencer, says Dearing, uses a combination of techniques in a hybrid approach, known as Empower to Improve. His presentation at RBTE will highlight how this method has been applied. Dearing says the hybrid approach draws on a series of techniques to help empower colleagues, including Agile, Lean Six Sigma tools and design thinking.

The aim is for the retailer to move away from a centrally-led, continuous improvement approach that relies on a series of practitioners. Instead, Dearing wants people across the organisation to come up with great ideas. “It’s about empowering colleagues to find opportunities and test them for themselves,” he says.

“We want our people to find their own ways of changing the business and we want to give them the tools so we can help. Continuous improvement allows you to look at the world differently – the answer that comes out the other side might provide a better way of doing things.”

Creativity

Dearing says this process of empowerment and improvement gives retail workers more freedom to be creative. “It's about encouraging that innovative streak that our employees have and nurturing it to fruition,” he says, suggesting continuous improvement is already being employed on the shop floor.

The retailer recently deployed more than 9,000 Honeywell Dolphin 75e mobile computers to boost inventory management processes in its stores. Dearing says continuous improvement around the development of applications for these devices is a strong example of the digital and physical blend that is inherent to success.

“We can follow agile project methodologies to create new apps and support new processes very quickly,” he says. “We can change and evolve those applications once they're introduced, as opposed to having a rigid piece of kit that we can’t alter. The physical and digital blend means the door is completely open to trying new things.”

As Dearing stated at the outset, however, continuous improvement must be viewed as a work in progress. Efforts to introduce this modern business management approach in a traditional sector, like retailing, can present a challenge for managers and workers. While the benefits of continuous improvement can be significant, retail executives must strive for an equilibrium between operational effectiveness and radical change.

“You must have consistency, but at the same time you can't stifle innovation, so finding the balance between those two areas is a key part of what we're trying to do now,” he says. “The requirement to support staff as they look to do things differently from the traditional way of working is another area I’ll touch upon at RBTE.”

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