Continual improvement

This article describes why continual improvement is needed, what it is, and explores the foundations that have to be laid for it to progress from desire to reality.

Continual improvement is referred to in countless annual reports, corporate policies, and value statements, but it is often hard to define. It sometimes seems to be the same as six sigma or total quality, but these terms are also ill-defined. Kaizen is another term that literally means continual improvement, but even this single word has such variation in application that it is best to confirm its meaning before accepting its use.

Why is continual improvement needed?

Because in its absence things will get worse. Anyone with children, a garage or a garden knows that tidiness is not a natural state. It takes a lot of effort to establish, and more to keep it that way.

Some organisations are run as if they don't need continual improvement. Management may think its customers are satisfied, competition may be ineffective, or there are enough resources to do the job without compromise. But experience shows that organisations may thrive (or survive) as long as these conditions prevail, but will struggle to respond as soon as the environment changes.

What is continual improvement?

Continual improvement is an approach that enables operators and managers to understand the operation of ongoing processes, learn from the data and outcomes, and think about process changes. It must include the capability of testing and validating proposed changes and incorporating the improvements in the standard operating procedures. It also demands good two-way communications with others in similar processes, in order that learning can be shared and to ensure that people do not have to rediscover the same solutions.

Continual improvement is not working harder. This is the whole point. Improving processes systematically is the opposite of cries for longer hours. Hard work usually means that people are stretching an incapable system to try and get acceptable results.


The benefits of continual improvement include:

  • being able to make the most of existing facilities and resources with minimal capital investment
  • enabling employees to achieve the goals of their jobs without having to fight fires and engage in rework all the time
  • keeping up with or overtaking one's competitors
  • improving staff motivation by helping them to contribute to the organisation's well-being

Systemic and corporate improvement

If the organisation is to thrive, continual improvement needs to be far more than local. It is acceptable and laudable to generate local improvements, but not enough. If changes are not standardised as part of the everyday operations they will decay as entropy takes over. And if the standardisation is not extended across the organisation, the opportunity for learning is lost.

This presents many challenges and demands a systemic approach - a system for continual improvement.

Dr Deming described a system as: 'A network of interdependent components that cooperate in order to achieve the aim of the system' (The New Economics, 1993).

The aim of a continual improvement system is to ensure that everyone is engaged in continually developing processes to achieve their potential within the overall organisational goals.

Those intending to practise continual improvement need to understand the purpose of their processes and to be able to apply some disciplines of learning and the tools of analysis, testing and implementation.

Continual improvement principles, methodologies and tools

This is a very big subject, as any business bookshelf will demonstrate. In this feature we describe the big picture, so that the reader can prioritise their future study.

Principles: study-plan do study act

Continual improvement can only be a by-product of learning. It is implicit that, if people know how to operate a well optimised process they would the doing so. New knowledge is needed.

Figure 1: the Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle

The best model for learning is Dr Deming's PDSA Cycle. Developed in the early 1950s from the scientific or experimental method, it forms the foundation of all improvement activities, whether incremental and continual or one-off major breakthroughs.

The members' pages enlarge upon the PDSA cycle as the underlying theme for continual improvement.


Methodologies are structures (processes) which link the principles to the tools. They enable you to see which tool would help in your particular circumstance (using a tool in the wrong circumstance can be counterproductive). Appreciating the methodology structure is therefore more important than learning lots of tools and in fact one can make a lot of progress with the most basic of tools, providing the principles are kept in mind.

The members' pages describe the original model for all the improvement methodologies; the Japanese QC story.

There are many proprietary methodologies, applicable to departmental improvement, strategic programmes, supplier development, new product development and so on. They are aimed at resolving critical problems of whole system issues, which demand process re-engineering, continual improvement not being able to make the impact needed in the timescale, or resource scope.

Continual improvement tools

The quality world has always been attracted to tools. Starting with the control chart in the 1920s the toolset has grown and grown.

It's relatively easy to identify more than 150 different tools, too many for the average person to remember, never mind master. For local continual improvement activities it is sufficient to be able to use about 10 basic tools and these are listed on the members' pages.


Continual improvement is the result of a system that:

  • develops a mindset
  • trains the relevant people
  • encourages the use of a simple but robust methodology and tools
  • shares the learning across the organisation.

The tools of continual improvement help people to understand and improve processes, and are relevant to changes affecting the wider organisational system.

Continual improvement leads to benefits which at the point of implementation often look low key and are sometimes free, but which collectively may build to profound changes. Organisations that successfully embed continual improvement can maintain the capability of their system even though natural disorganisation takes its toll.

It is expensive and time consuming to develop the capability for continual improvement across the whole organisation, and it demands persistence over many years from top management, but all who practise it see it as worth the trouble. The alternative is to be continually repairing the consequences of deterioration in process performance, and that is much more expensive and bad for customer relationships and staff morale.

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Author: Jan Gillett

Jan Gillett is chairman of Process Management International (PMI) Ltd which has been at the forefront of business improvement consultancy and training since the early 1980s.

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