The Business Improvement Network

What is Business Improvement?

By PJ Stevens

PJ Stevens

Business Improvement has been described as the process of a ‘thing moving from one state to a state that is considered to be better’, usually through some action or intervention intended to bring about that change and improvement. 

The concept of improvement is important to governments and businesses alike, as well as to sports teams, charities and of course individuals. But what do we mean by improvement, and can it be given a general description or is it simply what it means to you, at that time?

For example an athlete might want to improve their sprint time by 1/100th of a second where as a company might consider a shift in culture to be improvement.  

In general, the term improvement means ‘gradual, piecemeal, but cumulative betterment’, which can refer to individuals, organisations or communities.  Historically, improvement referred to land improvement, particularly the process of making wild land more suitable and useful for humans and crop cultivation. Sarah Tarlow, a Professor of Archaeology, has argued that the idea of improvement is so familiar to us today that it seems natural. It may seem natural, yet there are many challenges in identifying improvement opportunities, creating a strategy for improving the right things in the right way and developing a culture where improvement is seen as both positive and necessary by those who will deliver it. After all, those involved in improvement are people, and people are complex with their own expectations, hopes, fears, rules and ego. As the expression goes, ‘business is simple, people complicate it’, and some people can literally bring improvement strategies – and indeed businesses – to a stop!

Business improvement encompasses many theories and practices, for example business process improvement is a systematic approach to help an organisation optimise it’s underlying processes and procedures to achieve more efficient results. One approach to this is focused improvement, which is primarily about elevating the performance of any system, especially a business system, by working on eliminating its constraints. Performance improvement however focuses on measuring the output of a particular business process or activity, then morphing or manipulating – however slightly - the process to increase the output, efficiency or the effectiveness of said process, activity or procedure. Quality improvement on the other hand is one of the four aspects of the concept of quality management which is a profession in its own right.

In more recent years, the aspects of business improvement has widen to include such terms and activities as organisational change, employee engagement and culture change, and as Pete Drucker is so often quoted ‘ Culture eats strategy for breakfast’.  Therefore not only must we pay attention to the analytics, strategies and processes of improvement, but also the softer side of improvement, meaning people, feelings, leadership, relationships and the environment for improvement.

Interestingly the term business improvement is becoming more widely linked to Business Improvement Districts. A business improvement district often referred to as a BID is a defined area within which businesses pay an additional form of tax or investment to fund projects within the BID. BIDs may go by other names including business improvement area (BIA), business revitalisation zone (BRZ), community improvement district (CID), special services area (SSA), or special improvement district (SID). These types of districts often fund services which are thought to be inadequately performed by government, such as cleaning streets, providing security, making capital improvements and marketing the area.  

In England and Wales, BIDs were introduced through the Local Government Act 2003 and the Circle Initiative -funded by the London Development Agency - set up the first five pilot BIDs in London. By late 2014, there were over 180 BIDs in operation in the United Kingdom and by February 2017, there were 270 BIDs in the United Kingdom.

Whilst BIDs have been considered successful in the main, they have also come under scrutiny for forcing businesses to invest who cannot really afford it or may not benefit from it, and for being too harsh on other members of the community including street traders and the homeless. President of Civic Voice, Griff Rhys Jones criticised the creation of a BID in central London saying that was undemocratic. 

So business improvement might be good for some, it might not be good for everyone in the community, this extends from BIDs to businesses, circling us back to the question, what is business improvement? 

For now, let’s agree improvement, in particular business improvement, needs to be clearly defined by what you think it means at that time. 

About the author

PJ Stevens is an expert in organisational change, performance and improvement, with 20 years experience. He is chair of the business improvement network.

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"Excellent firms don't believe in excellence - only in constant improvement and constant change"

Tom Peters