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What Is Continuous Improvement? The Complete Guide

Continuous improvement helps you identify opportunities always to become better. Discover the power of the continuous improvement mindset.

In Lean, continuous improvement is like a religion. Although it seems like a simple thing to achieve, leaders and teams who are not familiar with process improvement techniques have a hard time sustaining it.

To inspire continuous improvement thinking in your organization, let's answer: what exactly is continuous improvement? What are the principles and examples of continuous improvement?  

What Is Continuous Improvement? 

Continuous improvement is an ongoing process of identifying, analyzing, and making incremental improvements to systems, processes, products, or services. Its purpose is to drive efficiency, improve quality, and value delivery while minimizing waste, variation, and defects. The continual improvement process is driven by ongoing feedback, collaboration, and data. 
Continuous improvement is an essential component in a range of management systems, including Lean, Six Sigma, and Total Quality Management.  

What Is the Continuous Improvement Model in Lean? 

In Lean, continuous improvement is also known as Kaizen. The continuous improvement model refers to a never-ending strive for perfection in everything you do. 

Kaizen originated in Japan shortly after the end of the Second World War. It gained massive popularity in Lean manufacturing and became one of the foundations of Toyota’s rise from a small carmaker to the largest automobile manufacturer on the planet. 

In the context of the Lean methodology, continuous improvement seeks to improve every process in your company by focusing on enhancing the activities that generate the most value for your customer while removing as many waste activities as possible.

muda mura muri

The main types of waste in Lean are Muda, Mura and Muri.

  • Muda: The seven wastes

Muda consists of 7 Lean wastes: transport, inventory, motion, waiting, overproduction, over-processing, defects. 

Removing all of them completely is nearly impossible; however, focusing on minimizing their negative effects on your work is crucial for successfully implementing continuous improvement.

  • Mura: The waste of unevenness 

Mura is caused by unevenness or inconsistency in your process. It is responsible for many of the 7 wastes of Muda. Mura stops your tasks from flowing smoothly across your work process and therefore gets in your way of reaching continuous flow.

  • Muri: The waste of overburden 

Muri  is a major problem for companies that apply push systems. When you assign too much work to your team, you place unnecessary stress on both your team and the process.

Muri is usually a result of Mura, and if you want continuous improvement to become part of your culture, you need to focus on getting rid of those wastes.

The 6 Benefits of Implementing the Continuous Improvement Model

There are several key benefits of applying continuous improvement in a business context: 

1. Increased efficiency: Continuous improvement helps businesses to identify and eliminate waste, inefficiencies, and redundancies in their processes, resulting in increased efficiency and productivity. 

2. Improved quality: By continuously analyzing and refining their processes, businesses can improve the quality of their products or services, reducing defects, errors, and customer complaints. 

3. Cost savings: Continuous improvement can help businesses reduce their costs by eliminating waste, reducing defects, and streamlining processes, resulting in increased profitability. 

4. Employee engagement: At the heart of continuous improvement lies feedback and assessment of the efforts, which enables employee engagement and satisfaction, teamwork and collaboration. 

5. Enabling transformation: Continuous improvement can help businesses stay ahead of the competition by allowing them to respond quickly to changing market conditions, customer expectations, and the emerging need for digital transformation

6. Supporting innovation: Continuous improvement can also drive a culture of innovation by encouraging businesses to experiment with new ideas and processes, leading to new or improved products or services. 

What’s an Industry Example of Continuous Improvement? 

Let’s look at an industry example of continuous improvement efforts implemented successfully in the aerospace domain. 
Through establishing standards for prioritizing work based on urgency and implementing Kanban boards, engineering teams at a global manufacturer of aircraft parts, Aerosud, managed to visualize and address the roadblocks in their workflow. Introducing Kanban principles and practices, such as work-in-progress limits, has allowed the IT group to double their throughput within days. 
To further streamline their delivery processes, the teams utilized Kanban feedback loops to exchange feedback, making continuous improvement efforts a natural part of the process. 
In addition to adopting the Kanban principles and practices, the engineering team at Aerosud had also started to make use of the 5 Whys method to find the root cause of problems. (Source: Aerosud Case Study). 

Continuous Improvement Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) 

What Is a Continuous Improvement Cycle? 

One of the most widely applied techniques for continuous improvement is the Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) cycle which includes the following phases: 

  1. Plan: Continuous improvement planning involves setting goals, defining what needs to be improved, and identifying the steps to achieve those goals. Planning also involves analyzing data to identify areas for improvement.

  2. Do: Once a plan has been established, the next step is to put it into action. This involves implementing the changes identified in the planning phase and testing them to ensure they are effective. 

  3. Check: The third principle is to check the results of the changes that have been implemented. This involves measuring performance against the goals established in the planning phase, tracking progress, and analyzing data to determine whether the changes have had the desired effect. 

  4. Act: The final principle is to act on the results of the monitoring and evaluation process. If the changes have been successful, they should be standardized and integrated into the production process. If they have not been successful, the plan should be revised, and the improvement cycle should begin again.  

The cycle of continuous improvement should be ongoing, with each iteration building on the previous one to drive further improvement over time. 

What Are Examples of Continuous Improvement? 

Anything that can be improved can be used as an example of continuous improvement. From improving your business results and product quality to streamlining delivery processes and encouraging collaboration and feedback exchange across teams, departments, and suppliers, anything can be subject to continuous improvement. 

What Are the 3 Aspects of Continuous Improvement? 

The three key aspects of continuous improvement efforts include process, product and knowledge improvement. 

  • Process improvement: Refers to identifying, analyzing, and improving the various processes involved in delivering a product or service. 
  • Product improvement: This involves identifying, analyzing, and improving the product or service itself, including its features, design, and functionality. 
  • People improvement: Through developing skills and knowledge of the people involved in products or services delivery, you can create a culture of continuous learning and improvement.

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In Summary

There are many ways to achieve continuous improvement. All of them have one thing in common - analyzing what can be done better compared to the past. You can sustain continuous improvement by:

  • Minimizing the wastes in your process
  • Creating a suitable environment for your team to improve
  • Implementing the PDCA cycle
  • Always looking for the root cause of existing and potential problems
  • Apply the Kanban method for workflow management
Michaela Toneva

Michaela Toneva

SEO & Content Creator | Agile Practitioner

With a never-ending thirst for knowledge and a passion for continuous improvement, Michaela is an Agile practitioner with a good understanding of Kanban, Lean, and Agile methodologies. Her professional background includes SEO and content writing with a dose of sales and a pinch of social media.

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