A continuous improvement plan is a set of activities designed to bring gradual, ongoing improvement to products, services, or processes through constant review, measurement, and action. The Shewhart Cycle (also known as the Delming Cycle or PDCA, which stands for Plan-Do-Check-Act), or an approach called Kaizen, are the two most well-known frameworks used to support continuous improvement.
Continuous improvement is a critical dimension of all major quality frameworks and methodologies, including Six Sigma, ISO, and Baldrige.
Why Continuous Improvement?
Organizations dedicated to continuous improvement recognize the importance of these actions for strengthening the quality of a product, improving customer satisfaction, and for improving efficiency, productivity and profits. Implementing the program is a tacit acknowledgment that, even though the company's operations will never reach perfection, they can always be better than they were yesterday.
4 Different Industry Applications
The different industry applications include the following:
- Process-focused industries: In process-intensive industries and applications, the continuous improvement program allows individuals and groups to identify inefficiencies or bottlenecks. This affords people the opportunity to streamline processes and minimize time, effort, and waste. Continuous improvement is inherent in the Toyota Production System (known as the Lean methodology) and its use of Kaizen.
- Hardware-product applications: In hardware-product-centric applications, a program of continuous improvement based on customer feedback allows the manufacturer to improve the quality of the product, enhance product capabilities in subsequent products, and identify opportunities to streamline manufacturing processes—resulting in reduced costs.
- Service industries: In service-focused industries, continuous improvement is implemented to improve efficiency and strengthen the quality of service delivery. From a catering operation to a car wash business, these firms must regularly measure customer satisfaction and observe activities in order to identify opportunities to improve results.
- Software companies: In many software development activities and methodologies—including waterfall and agile approaches—the theory and practice of continuous improvement are inherent. In waterfall, a product is developed according to detailed specifications and the completed application is tested for bugs. The bugs are repaired and a new release is tested, with the expectation of a diminishing number of bugs over time. Agile methods incorporate shorter development cycles and provide ongoing customer feedback, with subsequent releases that are improved in terms of capability, quality, and performance.
The Shewhart Cycle
The Shewhart Cycle follows a circle with no beginning or end, meaning that continuous improvement is a process that never stops.
A simple description of the PDCA cycle is:
- Plan: Identify an opportunity and create a plan for improvement.
- Do: Test the change on a small scale where results can easily be observed and measured.
- Check: Evaluate the results of the test and summarize the lessons learned.
- Act: If the test worked, implement the change on a slightly larger scale and monitor results.
Remember, the process is a cycle. If the test fails, repeat the entire process. If it works, monitor results and start over again with a new plan to promote additional improvements. The work of continuous improvement is never-ending.
Kaizen is a Japanese term that stands for "change for the better." Kaizen supports the perspective that everything can be improved, even if it's incremental. Continuous incremental improvements over time are viewed as desirable and can translate into improved quality, reduced costs, simplified work processes, less waste, and improved customer satisfaction and profits. Kaizen is a critical part of the broader Toyota Production System.
Continuous Improvement Is a Way of Life
The late quality guru W. Edwards Deming said that managers and organizations must have a consistency of purpose and a deep and abiding dedication to constant, ongoing improvement in order to satisfy customers, beat the competition, and retain jobs. Deming's focus was on ensuring that continuous improvement was bred into the culture, not something that was momentary or occasional. He often criticized managers for being short-sighted and focusing on the wrong measures. In contrast, Deming encouraged managers to invest in the long-term by focusing on meaningful measures of continuous improvement.
Organizations that excel at continuous improvement incorporate it into their values and reflect it in their hiring and training. They also incorporate it into their employee evaluation and compensation system. Employees take greater ownership in these companies because they are invested in the process of ongoing improvement. If you visit a firm that excels at this work, the signs of continual refinements will be visible in every aspect of the culture. Continuous improvement is a way of life, not a passing fad or short-term fix.