What Is Continuous Improvement?

Mary Gormandy White
continuous improvement gears

According to the American Society for Quality (ASQ), continuous improvement (CI) "is the ongoing improvement of products, services or processes through incremental and breakthrough improvements." This approach can be beneficial for all types of businesses, including manufacturers, healthcare organizations, retailers, service businesses, and more.

PDCA CI Model

While are multiple ways to approach CI in an organization, ASQ indicates the plan-do-check-act (PDCA) cycle is one of "the most widely used tools." This approach, which is a four-step iterative process focused on quality, is also commonly referred to as the control cycle, the Deming Cycle, or the Shewhart Cycle. According to Advisera, Shewart and Deming are widely recognized as "two of the fathers of modern quality control."

Model Elements

The four elements of the PDCA cycle are:

  • PDCA circle
    Plan: During the planning phase, it is necessary to collect data, clearly define the problem, decide what changes are desirable, and map out a plan for improvement. This phase helps identify the root cause(s) of problems and come up with solutions.
  • Do: During this phrase, the focus turns to action. This is where the plans developed in the previous phase are implemented. As this process is iterative, initial implementation will be done on a small scale to allow for improvement in the next phase.
  • Check: Following implementation (initial or otherwise), it is necessary to pause and evaluate what has occurred. This is a measurement phase. It typically involves using before and after measures to determine what kind of impact, if any, the change had in order to determine if it was successful or not.
  • Act: Use what you learned in the previous stage to determine the best course of action. If all is well, move forward with implementation - but also continue to evaluate, plan, and adjust as needed. If not, go back to the planning phase and adjust as needed, then move forward through the cycle.

Ongoing Improvement

It's important to note this model is intended to be a process, rather than a checklist. That is why the term 'cycle' is used to describe it. A process is ongoing, meaning it really doesn't end. As Quality Magazine points out, "One cycle of PDCA may eliminate a quality problem; however, PDCA should be viewed as an ongoing cycle for quality improvement."

This distinction is very important for the continuous improvement mindset, as thinking this way requires always looking for ways to improve. Even when the results are in line with goals, it's possible to focus on improving processes to become more efficient and effective as well as to raise the bar in terms of desired accomplishments.

Other Methods to Facilitate CI

The PDCA cycle isn't the only way to facilitate continuous improvement, though it is a good starting point if CI is a fairly new commitment in your organization. ASQ points out "other widely used methods of continuous improvement" include Six Sigma, Lean, and Total Quality Management. PDCA is also incorporated in to the demanding International Standards Organization (ISO) 9001 standard.

These approaches are all focused on improving organizational capabilities. They are more expansive than the PDCA approach, emphasizing the importance of teamwork and employee involvement (at all levels) and finding ways to systematize and effectively measure processes toward the goal of consistent, optimal production with minimal errors or defects.

Key CI Benefits

There are a number of key benefits associated with incorporating continuous improvement into an organization's way of doing business. Examples include improvements in important metrics such as productivity, quality, job satisfaction, employee retention, and overall morale. It can also lead to reduced costs, fewer errors or defects, and shortened delivery times. With so many potential positive outcomes, it's easy to see why so many companies of all sizes across a wide variety of industries are opting implement continuous improvement.

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What Is Continuous Improvement?