Continuous improvement (also: continual improvement) is a process of constant searching for improvement of all aspects of organization: products, processes, workplace, machines, people, etc. The idea of continuous improvement is rooted deep in Eastern culture. In Western culture it became popular with quality movements like Total Quality Management or Lean manufacturing. The ultimate goal is the excellence. However this goal will never be achieved due to ever changing environment.
The process of improvement can be organized based on several approaches:
- Deming wheel (PDCA cycle): Plan - Do - Check - Act, developed by William Edwards Deming,
- DMAIC cycle: Define - Measure - Analyse - Improve - Control, developed in Six sigma methodology.
- Kaizen: approach developed in Japanese philosophy.
Roots of continuous improvement
The Eastern approach to quality since the beginning was related to searching the excellence. The oldest example of it is the Chinese book Tao Te Ching (book of the way and virtue) by Laozi from about IV century BC. The book defines the term of excellence and the way leading to it. The author doesn't refer directly to quality of material goods. However, this approach is visible throughout centuries in Eastern culture. Today, after many changes it is known as Kaizen.
In Western culture, Plato related quality of product to the excellence, however his approach was focused mainly on material goods, therefore much narrower.
Continuous improvement - the Japanese way
The Japanese approach requires:
Improvements are based on many small changes. Large investments don't solve the problems. They remove one problem and add another. When employees solve problems without investments, they are able to better understand the process, and therefore improve it much better. The investments are necessary, but they extend kaizen, not replace it.
Implementing many small improvements in every stage of process, from design of product to the customer, can create unique quality. This however can't be achieved quickly. The continuous improvement is slow process that takes years. The good example is Toyota. When it came to USA for the first time in 60s, the cars were really rubbish. However, when they came back in 80s, the cars were much better than American ones. It took 20 years.
An American answer to continuous improvement was reengineering - complex and quick rebuild of processes and even whole organizations. Some of them gone bankrupt. The reengineering replaces one problem with another. It doesn't add to understanding of the process. Therefore, in long term continuous improvement is more effective.
Continuous improvement - the international standards way
International standards, mainly ISO 9001, approach to improvement has changed over time. The proposed approaches were:
- Corrective and preventive actions,
- Continual improvement,
- Risk management.
Those three approaches are not mutually exclusive.
Corrective and preventive actions
Corrective actions are related to non-conformities that happen in the organization. In case of non-conformity, the organization should not only remove it, but also:
- find causes of non-conformity,
- deal with the causes to reduce probability of future appearance,
- check effectiveness of undertaken actions.
Preventive actions work similar way, however, the organization doesn't wait for non-conformity. If the employee supposes that it can happen in the future, he should immediately start the process of searching for causes.
The corrective actions work, however preventive don't. People don't have time to think about what may happen in future. Most of companies fills the documentation of preventive actions after performing them.
Continual improvement (ISO)
The continual improvement was added to ISO 9001 standard in 2000 issue. It was meant to enable organizations to search for improvement in every area. This however came with no additional tools. The only help could be self-assessment method described in ISO 9004.
In ISO 9001:2015 the term was shortened to Improvement. This might imply, that ISO treats improvement as finite process (typical for Western culture).
Risk management approach supersedes preventive actions. It requires organization to describe its environment, find possible risks and deal with them. This approach is much better than preventive actions, as it deals with real risks, not the invented potential non-conformities.
Risk management was described in ISO standards since ISO 13335. It was used in e.g. ISO 27001 Information security management system standard in 2005. However, only after publication of ISO 31000:2009 Risk management standard it became really usable. The ISO 9001:2015 uses methodology from ISO 31000.
Examples of Continuous improvement
- Employee training: Companies can provide regular training to their employees to improve their skills and knowledge. This can improve the efficiency of the employees and the quality of the products they produce.
- Process improvement: Companies can review their processes and find areas to improve. This can be done by implementing new technologies, streamlining processes, or finding more efficient ways to do things.
- Quality control: Companies can set up quality control programs to identify and address product defects. This can improve customer satisfaction by ensuring the products meet the customer's expectations.
- Automation: Companies can look for ways to automate tasks or processes. This can result in improved productivity, accuracy, and cost savings.
- Error prevention: Companies can put in place systems and processes to reduce or eliminate errors. This can help reduce waste and improve the quality of products and services.
Advantages of Continuous improvement
Continuous improvement is an approach to organization management that focuses on making continual improvements to its processes and products. This approach is beneficial for companies as it provides several advantages, including:
- Increased Efficiency: Continuous improvement seeks to identify and eliminate any inefficiencies in the production process. This can result in increased productivity and cost savings, as well as improved customer satisfaction.
- Improved Quality: Through the use of data-driven analysis, continuous improvement helps to identify areas in which quality can be improved. This can include reducing defects, increasing consistency and accuracy, and improving customer service.
- Increased Employee Engagement: With continuous improvement, employees are more engaged in the improvement process and are more likely to suggest innovative solutions. This leads to higher engagement, better morale, and higher job satisfaction.
- Increased Competitive Advantage: By continually improving its processes and products, a company can gain a competitive edge over its competitors.
Overall, continuous improvement is a beneficial approach to organization management that can lead to improved efficiency, quality, employee engagement, and competitive edge.
Limitations of Continuous improvement
- The success of continuous improvement relies heavily on the commitment of the organization’s management, employees and customers. If any of these stakeholders are not fully engaged and committed to the process, it will be difficult to achieve success.
- Continuous improvement can be expensive, since it requires resources such as training, technology and time.
- Continuous improvement processes can be slow and labor-intensive, which can be a challenge for organizations that need to rapidly respond to customer needs and market changes.
- Continuous improvement initiatives require careful organization and planning to ensure that they are properly implemented and successful.
- Without clear goals and objectives, it can be difficult to measure the success of continuous improvement initiatives.
- Without regular feedback, it is difficult to assess whether the continuous improvement initiatives are achieving the desired results.
- It can be difficult to ensure the sustainability of continuous improvement initiatives over time, so that the organization can maintain its competitive edge.
One of the related approaches to continuous improvement is Kaizen, which is a Japanese term for continuous improvement or “change for the better”. Kaizen involves the involvement of all employees, from the management to the workers, to constantly search and implement better processes and workflows. Additionally, Kaizen encourages employees to identify areas of improvement and suggest solutions.
Another related approach to continuous improvement is Six Sigma. Six Sigma is a data-driven approach to improving process quality and reducing defect rates. It emphasizes the use of data to identify and analyze problems, and then to develop solutions to improve processes.
Lastly, Lean Manufacturing is another approach to continuous improvement. Lean Manufacturing is a system of eliminating waste and inefficiencies in production processes. It is focused on reducing costs and increasing output by making processes more efficient.
In summary, Continuous improvement is an important process of identifying, analyzing, and improving processes in order to reach excellence. Kaizen, Six Sigma, and Lean Manufacturing are related approaches that focus on using data, employee involvement, and eliminating waste in order to reach this goal.
- Tao Te Ching (Wikipedia)
- Anand G, Wart PT, Tatikonda MV, Schilling DA (2009) Dynamic capabilities through continuous improvement infrastructure, Journal of Operations Management, Volume 27, Issue 6
- Karen J. Fryer, Jiju Antony, Alex Douglas, (2007) Critical success factors of continuous improvement in the public sector: A literature review and some key findings, The TQM Magazine, Vol. 19 Iss: 5
- Judy Oliver, (2009) Continuous improvement: role of organisational learning mechanisms, International Journal of Quality & Reliability Management, Vol. 26 Iss: 6
Author: Slawomir Wawak