Continual improvement

What is continual improvement?

Continual improvement is a type of change that is focused on increasing the effectiveness and/or efficiency of an organisation to fulfil its policy and objectives. It is not limited to quality initiatives. Improvement in business strategy, business results, customer, employee and supplier relationships can be subject to continual improvement. Put simply, it means 'getting better all the time'.

What should be improved?

Continual improvement should focus on enablers such as leadership, communication, resources, organisation architecture, people and processes - in other words, everything in the organisation, in all functions at all levels.

Continual improvement should also lead to better results such as price, cost, productivity, time to market, delivery, responsiveness, profit and customer and employee satisfaction. There has been a tendency in total quality management (TQM) programmes to focus on departmental improvement which does not improve business results overall. Departmental improvements may merely move the constraints or problem somewhere else in the process chain.

What continual improvement is not

Improvement is not about using a set of tools and techniques. Improvement is not going through the motions of organising improvement teams and training people. Improvement is a result, so it can only be claimed after there has been a beneficial change in an organisation's performance.

Gradual, incremental or breakthrough

There are three types of improvement. Continuous improvement is gradual never-ending change, whereas continual improvement is incremental change. Both types of improvements are what the Japanese call Kaizen. Breakthroughs are improvements but in one giant leap - a step change. However, the method of achievement is the same but breakthroughs tend to arise out of chance discoveries and could take years before being made (see illustration).

improvement types

Relationship with TQM and ISO 9000

Continual improvement is one aspect of a TQM philosophy. It can also be an element of an ISO 9000 quality system. ISO 9000:2000 will in fact include requirements for continual improvement

Why is continual improvement important to an organisation?

All managerial activity is either directed at control or improvement. Managers are either devoting their efforts at maintaining performance, preventing change or creating change, breakthrough or improvement. If businesses stand still they will loose their competitive edge, so improvements must be made to keep pace and stay in business.

When should continual improvement be started?

Every system, programme or project should have provision for an improvement cycle. Therefore when an objective has been achieved, work should commence on identifying better ways of doing it.

How should continual improvement be undertaken?


There is no improvement without measurement. An organisation must establish current performance before embarking on any improvement. If it does not, it will have no baseline from which to determine if its efforts have yielded any improvement.

A ten step sequence

There are ten steps to undertaking continual improvement:

  1. determine current performance
  2. establish a need to improve
  3. obtain commitment and define the improvement objective
  4. organise the diagnostic resources
  5. carry out research and analysis to discover the cause of current performance
  6. define and test solutions that will accomplish the improvement objective
  7. produce improvement plans which specify how and by whom the changes will be implemented
  8. identify and overcome any resistance to the change
  9. implement the change
  10. put in place controls to hold new levels of performance and repeat step one

Where do the ideas come from?

If the organisation has identified its critical success factors (that handful of things at which it must be supremely good in order to succeed), then to focus the attention of the continual improvement process onto one or more of these for a defined period might give rise to major improvements.

Whose responsibility is it?

No one in the organisation, from top to bottom, is exempt from the responsibility for improvement. It is a normal component of all employees' jobs to search out ways of improving performance. Furthermore, no one is expected to do this without help and support from others.

How does a company organise for improvement?

Most continual improvement programmes are executed by teams that either diagnose problems, search for solutions or implement changes. These teams may be within departments or cross-functional. However, there needs to be a steering group of managers which directs the teams towards their goal, and above all provides the environment for success.

What tools should be used?

The portfolio of tools used for continual improvement should be those which enable an organisation to execute the ten steps above. These include:

  • Ishikawa fishbone diagram to examine cause and effect
  • failure mode and effects analysis to predict failure and prevent its occurrence
  • Pareto analysis to identify the few influences on a situation which have the biggest impact
  • forcefield diagram to display the forces for and against change
  • charting techniques to demonstrate whether improvement is being achieved

Changing the culture

Continual improvement is far more than a set of techniques. For many organisations, it involves a radical change in attitudes. The defence of the status quo, and resistance to innovation, cannot be treated as normal management behaviour. A fear of reprisals for reporting problems has to be replaced by congratulating people for identifying an opportunity to improve. Hoarding of good ideas within departmental walls must be a thing of the past as people share their knowledge and experience in the search for greater collective success.

The importance of commitment

Continual improvement is about the entire organisation and everything it does. It has to be a prime concern of executive management and its success depends upon commitment from the top. The commitment must also be highly visible. It is not enough to have a quality policy signed by the chief executive. If executive management does not demonstrate its commitment by doing what it says it will do it cannot expect others to be committed to the policy.

Reward success

The encouragement of people who have initiated improvements, however small, is an important component. This can be done in many ways, from displays on special improvement notice boards to the awarding of prizes. This is an area in which the culture and style of the organisation has to be considered. The sudden introduction of a showbusiness style into a staid environment may lead to cynicism rather than effective promotion of improvement. Rewards may, but need not, have a financial component.

Dealing with failure

It is very common to find that about 12 to 18 months into a continual improvement programme it is felt that it is not delivering what was expected. This is just the time to redouble efforts. It is a long-term haul to change behaviour, therefore persistence and extra imaginative effort is the key.

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