What is Continuous Improvement? A Simple Guide

Emma Harris

Continuous Improvement is an ongoing, long-term approach to improving processes, products and services. It is also called Continual Improvement or CI, and is one of those terms which we often think we fully understand, but can actually mean many different things to many different people.

This article gives a simple guide to Continuous Improvement by exploring the following:

If you don't fancy reading the whole thing, feel free to click straight to the section you are most interested in.

The Aim of Continuous Improvement

Generally speaking, continuous improvement aims to:

  • Increase Efficiency
  • Increase Quality
  • Reduce Costs

Organisations which implement continuous improvement achieve this by making small, gradual improvements over time.

hero-atc-quality-manager

As the majority of changes are small, there is often less resistance to change, which is ideal for improvement professionals who wish to:

  • See results fairly quickly
  • Negate resistance to the change initiative
  • Create a more agile improvement project
  • Get senior management on board with a results led argument for change
  • Create a culture of improvement in the business 

5 Crucial Aspects of an Improvement Plan

  1. Improvement is Based on Small Changes - that are each able to be implemented within a fairly short time frame
  2.  Input From the Entire Workforce is Necessary - (employees performing the process need to be involved in change decisions) - as Panasonic founder, Konosuke Matsushita once said, "continued existence depends on the mobilisation of every ounce of intelligence"
  3. Employees Must be Allowed to Take Ownership of Improvement Decisions - and will be more invested in the changes that they came up with in the first place
  4. Communication Regarding the Change is Crucial to Ongoing Success - the bigger the organisation the harder this becomes - this is where software tools can really help
  5. The Improvement Must be Analysed - to see whether it really is effective - again where software tools can really help

Download your Complete Guide to Continuous Improvement in Business

3 Continuous Improvement Methodologies that are Easy to Understand & Use

1. DMAIC

DMAIC is a methodology made up of 5 phases: Define, Measure, Analyse, Improve and Control. 

These 5 phases ensure that any improvement project is able to be analysed with data-driven evidence and repeated. 

  • Define - Identify the improvement opportunity
  • Measure - Capture the process data for documentation
  • Analyse - Find the root causes of the process problem (focus on causes, not symptoms)
  • Improve - Determine the steps that should be taken to improve the process
  • Control - Monitor any change implementation to see if there has been improvement

dmaic triaster 1

2. The 5 Whys 

The 5 Whys were developed to get to the root cause of a problem; not just identify a problem's symptoms.  

These questions are important for exposing flawed processes within an organisation (The 5 Whys also partner well with DMAIC)

The number of Whys can vary but 5 is usually the right number to get to the root of the problem. 

Here is an example... 

The customer is unhappy 

Why is the customer unhappy? (1)

The customer is unhappy because no one responded to her support request 

Why didn’t anyone respond to her support request? (2)

No one responded to her support request because she posted it on Twitter

Why didn’t anyone respond to her tweet? (3)

No one responded to her tweet because Alice is on vacation 

Why does Alice’s vacation mean no one responded to the tweet? (4)

Because Alice is the only one who responds to tweets and she doesn’t have a backup 

Why doesn’t Alice have a backup? (5)

Because we never thought about it before 

3. Value Stream Mapping 

Value Stream Mapping is the process of visualising the product pipeline as a series of process connections and measuring the value that those steps brings to the customer. 

Value stream maps are used to visualise and identify delays, restraints and excessive inventory within processes. There are three groups within the value stream... 

  • Value Adding – a customer is willing to accept this step as an acceptable cost to them 
  • Non-value Adding – the customer feels it unfair to assign these costs to them 
  • Necessary Non-value Adding – costs to the customer are necessary but the customer may still feel unhappy to pay 

Continuous Improvement Infographic

The First Steps Toward Continuous Business Improvement

1. Set Smart Goals

Improvement starts with objective setting. Your objective can be anything, but should be broken down into SMART goals.
SMART goals are:
  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Timebound

For more information on SMART goals please read this article, but I find it most helpful to think of a SMART goal as being the full address of where I want to get to next. This may not be my ultimate objective, but it’s where I want to arrive first. So, for example if my objective is to improve my website to help grow my business, just leaving it at that gives me a very vague place to head to – which means I will really struggle to plan a route to get there.

If, however, I set my first goal as a 100 new, good fit contacts a month, within 3 months – then I have the a very clear place to head to, and now all I need to do is set up my Improvement Roadmap of what I need to do to get there. (And once I do, I set my next smart goal and so on…)

2. Set up an Improvement Roadmap

Of course as you start to set up your Improvement Roadmap, you won’t know exactly what you need to do to achieve your smart goal – otherwise you would just do it. But you do know that achieving improvement is about making lots of small changes and measuring the results to see if they are taking you towards your goal. If they are, you do more of them and if they aren’t, you stop doing them!

So where should the ideas for these changes come from? And how should they best be managed?

Remembering the 5 crucial elements of an improvement plan, the most effective improvement plans:

  • Capture ideas from all relevant/interested parties
  • Enable all relevant/interested parties to input into the prioritisation of those ideas for change
  • Help support the implementation of the changes agreed  
  • Help communicate the change roadmap to all relevant/interested parties on an ongoing basis
  • Support the analysis of the changes implemented

Building improvement roadmaps which enables the above, is most certainly the easiest and quickest way to implement Continuous Improvement in any organisation.

Some Practical Help

Triaster has been working in the Continuous Improvement space for many years and based on experience and analysis of how the most successful organisations do it, have developed improvement roadmap software which enables all of the above, to best support Continuous Improvement. 

Amazingly, it is also free. Sign up for it now. 

Try the ATC Platform For Free 

Related Articles:

How do I create a culture of Continuous Improvement?

DMAIC Process vs Cycle: Why Process Wins Every Time

How to Implement Value Stream Mapping Software in a BPM System

Related White Papers:

The Complete Guide to Continuous Improvement in Business

This is an updated and refreshed edition of an article originally written in 2018.

Written by Emma Harris

Emma was Operations Director for Triaster for nearly 20 years, during which time as well as learning and perfecting her BPM and process improvement skills, she honed her inbound marketing expertise. She now runs D2e - Designed to engage - which designs and develops bespoke, engaging, HubSpot CMS websites, that help your entire company to grow and scale. She is delighted to still be delivering Triaster's marketing, whilst also helping other companies turn their websites into their hardest working asset.