Continuous improvement

Continuous improvement
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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:

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:

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

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.

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Author: Slawomir Wawak