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What is Continuous Improvement? Definition, Examples, and Tips

What is continuous improvement

Businesses are increasingly adopting continuous improvement (CI) as a strategic goal to improve their business operations proactively. If you’re a quality management professional, your expertise in the concept and application of continuous improvement can work in your favor in the current job market, where these skills are in high demand.

This article will explore the basics of continuous improvement, its benefits, implementation tips, career paths, and more. Additionally, we will discuss how you can start your journey in this dynamic field by choosing a job-ready Six Sigma training course.

How Do We Define a Continuous Improvement Lifecycle?

A continuous improvement lifecycle is a cyclical method of identifying and rectifying errors. It evaluates the process for inefficiency, wastage, and undetected flaws. Applying corrective actions becomes a regular task rather than being performed only after customer complaints or a major breakdown. CI helps catch errors before they become big enough to stop operations.

As identifying and accepting errors is normalized, the employees become receptive toward working on corrective and preventive actions to improve quality. The CI lifecycle thus enables every individual in the organization to develop a continuous improvement mindset, wherein they can keep learning and applying novel concepts for a quality output. They begin to work congruently towards taking the company to a higher level.

Also Read: Six Sigma Tools: Here’s Top Powerful Tools You Should Know in 2024

What is Continuous Improvement: Examples

Here are some examples to further clarify what continuous improvement looks like in real life.

Insufficient Inventory

Having sufficient inventory is crucial to keeping the processes running smoothly. Delays in shipments may lead to low inventory, which can snowball into frustrated end users. Hence, continuous improvement aims to find issues with steps such as raw material inventory at the supplier, shipment durations, and demand rates. The solution typically involves closely tracking all the steps and setting up alerts for insufficient inventory.

Regular Expert Seminars

Working on the same process can lead to a restricted point of view regarding quality. Hence, continuous improvement is implemented wherein the pain points and skill gaps are noted, training is arranged for the skills, external experts are invited to introduce upcoming and new concepts, and the effect of the training on the process quality is tracked using predetermined metrics.

Acquisition Bottlenecks

A scientific organization may not be able to meet its research goals within the timeline due to bottlenecks in material ordering and equipment acquisition. Hence, a continuous improvement program can be applied to the accounting and approval department to root out the cause for the bottlenecks, such as incomplete forms, long approval processes, paper-based requests, etc. Removing the issues and improving the time to obtain materials can accelerate the research progress.

Safety in a Chemical Factory

A chemical factory must comply with OSHA regulations. Although everyone follows basic safety rules, a closer look at incidents is required to find the issue. A continuous improvement program can be adopted to implement additional safety rules gradually rather than changing most of them simultaneously.

Waiting Times in Restaurants

While waiting at a restaurant is a known phenomenon, some restaurants are notorious for excruciatingly long waiting times after ordering food. A continuous improvement program can help identify the reason for the delay, such as slow food preparation, low number of staff, improper flow of ordering and serving food, etc. This can help streamline the process and lessen the waiting time.

Types of Continuous Improvement Processes

The continuous improvement process can be implemented in two major ways—incremental and breakthrough. The choice depends on the magnitude of the issue and the time available. Typically, you may use a combination of the two for the most optimum solution.

Incremental Improvement

It refers to minor changes to the process without a complete overhaul and drastic disruption to business operations.

This ensures that the product is improved gradually using the infrastructure already in place, thereby avoiding a major equipment purchase. You can do such small and immediate solutions without involving a team for approval and communicate these changes to the people in your operational unit so that they know about the improvement. Incremental continuous improvement is implemented in a short span of time, and the effect is observed immediately.

Breakthrough Improvement

It entails occasionally evaluating the various parts of the organizational processes for undetected inefficiencies or identified flaws. It requires the investment of considerable resources and time. This may lead to a temporary disruption of operations and may also involve a change of equipment or method. Breakthrough improvement typically requires a team to assess, analyze, and change the process. The results become visible over a longer period after the corrective actions have been implemented.

However, what sets this apart from similar improvement processes is that the employees do not wait for a breakdown or insist on running the old process. They regularly assess the various parts of the operations for any potential for modification or enhancement. Further, these breakthrough improvements considerably impact the productivity and financial aspects of the business.

Also Read: What is Value Stream Mapping? Process, Examples, and Everything You Need to Know

The Key Advantages of Continuous Improvement

Businesses worldwide integrate continuous improvement for numerous advantages. Let’s take a glance at some of them.

  • The product quality undergoes a tangible improvement. The product’s competitiveness in the market is enhanced with customers going for a known product of consistently high quality.
  • Higher productivity and efficiency lead to a reduced production cost and a low error ratio.
  • Direct involvement in the quality improvement process gives employees a sense of responsibility and greater satisfaction, as they can improve the processes personally.
  • Better collaboration between various departments results in streamlined teamwork and potential for innovation.
  • Consistent quality leads to greater customer satisfaction, higher customer retention, and an enhanced brand name.
  • The organization develops a culture of proactive learning to understand customer requirements and work toward a smooth resolution.
  • Closer tracking of the organizational processes for potential flaws results in a safer work environment.
  • The employees are better acquainted with the objectives and core values of the organization.

What Is Continuous Improvement, and When to Use It

Improper use of continuous improvement may result in loss of time and effort and unresolved problems. Hence, knowing in what instances you can use this method is important. You can use CI when:

  • The issues are recurring, and a permanent solution has not been found.
  • Customer complaints are on the rise and are more or less about similar problems or processes.
  • A huge investment in equipment change is not possible at the given moment.
  • The quality improvement team is disconnected from the rest of the employees, who are not motivated to get involved.
  • The quality improvement has come to a standstill with no tangible growth.

A reputed Six Sigma bootcamp can help you gauge more instances where you can apply continuous improvement.

Four Stages of Continuous Improvement Lifecycle

Now that we’ve answered “What is continuous improvement?”, let’s explore the four major stages of the CI lifecycle—Plan, Do, Check, and Act, also called the PDCA cycle.

Stage 1: Plan

Establishing the objective of the improvement exercise and planning the pathway forms the core of the ‘PLAN’ stage. This is a critical stage as it decides the course of the exercise and the outcome.

A badly planned improvement process will delay the timeline, damage the existing operation, or leave the main issues undetected and unsolved. Hence, you must invest sufficient time and effort in this stage to plan and allocate the tasks to be completed.

Stage 2: Do

In this stage, you will follow the steps detailed in the plan. Tracking the completion of the tasks as per the plan is crucial. Team members must do their part within the given timeframe to avoid delays or errors. The data is collected to assess the efficiency of the steps taken.

Stage 3: Check

After implementing the plan, you must check if the measures work to the desired level. Appropriate inspection techniques can help in assessing the level of improvement. Any undetected flaw that was not addressed can be identified.

Stage 4: Act

If the ‘Check’ stage verifies that the improvement measures are working, you can apply these actions to the rest of the process or organization, as the case may be. If the actions do not seem to work as well as expected, you can return to the ‘Plan’ stage and reassess the situation. This helps keep the improvement process fluid and open to further development.

Also Read: Six Sigma Black Belt Salaries in 2024: Everything You Need to Know!

What is Continuous Improvement, and What Are the Methods?

The form in which CI is implemented may differ depending on the situation, sector, goals, and organizational structure. Here are a few popular methods.


Lean is a method that eliminates waste in as many process steps as possible. Waste may be unused material, scrap generated due to defective parts, over-ordered resources, etc. Lean entails streamlining communication and enhancing team coordination for innovative ideation and optimized resource use.


Kanban is a collaborative and visual continuous improvement method characterized by workflow transparency. The entire team knows all the steps and tasks in detail and can track them. The motive is to optimize work cycle times by focusing on task completion and reducing work-in-progress.

Six Sigma

Six Sigma is a statistical methodology for reducing the number of defects per a certain number of produced parts. It uses a data-driven approach to collect information about the process parameters and assess the improvement measures’ efficacy.


Kaizen is an incremental improvement method comprising small but effective actions implemented to enhance the process gradually. This Japanese term refers to allowing personnel to identify flaws and implement immediate changes in the system.

Total Quality Management

Total Quality Management (TQM) is a method that evaluates the entire production process, from the supply chain to customer service, for potential areas for improvement. This method adopts a broad vision to assess the effect of errors and corrective actions on the entire workflow rather than restricting the improvement exercise to a certain operational unit.

Steps to Implement a Continuous Improvement

Regardless of the method selected, the steps to implement a continuous improvement program remain largely the same. Below are the main steps of CI implementation.

  1. Evaluate and map the existing operations. Go through them in detail to learn and document the various parameters, equipment, work cycles, and the skills and work profiles of the concerned personnel.
  2. Note the issues and work on finding their root cause. This requires considerable input from various stakeholders and a deep process analysis.
  3. Based on the analysis, identify the bottlenecks and pain points and devise a solution. The solution must be backed by strong practical evidence and a solid theoretical foundation, including the metrics determining its effectiveness.
  4. Implement the corrective actions detailed in the solution. Involve the process workers and communicate the necessary actions for correct implementation. Impress upon them the need to follow the steps to the ‘T’ and collect sufficient data.
  5. Scrutinize the implementation results and deep-dive into the data to arrive at the predetermined metrics. Compare the metrics to the baseline values and assess the process efficiency. If the improvement is not up to the expected level, revisit your workflow and solution steps.
  6. If the implementation works optimally, standardize the parameters and revise the process flow and work instructions. Communicate the changes to the concerned unit and ensure they have understood the modifications. Track the new process and ascertain that the actions are being implemented correctly.

Completing a comprehensive, immersive Six Sigma course can help you learn how to implement a continuous improvement method correctly.

Continuous Improvement Careers

Continuous improvement has become a lucrative career. It includes roles such as CI manager, CI engineer, CI specialist, and CI lead. Further, as its implementation becomes more widespread, there will be an increasing demand for corporate trainers with expertise in continuous improvement. Here’s a quick look at the work profiles and salaries.

CI Engineer

They work on quality issues, devise specific engineering solutions, and assess their implementation. The average annual salary for this technical role is $100,062.

CI Manager

They work as project managers, develop and manage quality improvement programs for multiple departments, arrange audits and training sessions, and track quality issues. The average annual salary of this role is $124,525.

CI Lead

This is the team leader who takes charge of developing programs, assembling teams, and implementing the programs. They are concerned only with the issue at hand. This role also requires technical expertise and commands an average annual salary of $118,089.

CI Specialist

They are similar to project managers who evaluate a specific department and manage continuous improvement programs. They are responsible for assessing the need for CI, acquiring and allocating budgets, and finalizing the issues requiring improvement programs. The average annual salary this role earns is $111,010.

Develop In-Demand Skills in Continuous Improvement

Continuous improvement (CI) requires a massive shift in an organization’s culture. It encourages employees to be proactive about devising measures to improve product and process quality. Knowledge of CI can add significant value to your career and pave the road to lucrative employment opportunities in multiple industries.

Our comprehensive Six Sigma program will equip you with the essential skills to rise in this field. This self-paced program teaches key concepts such as DMAIC, Lean, Six Sigma, Agile management, and Minitab®. Aligned with IASCC’s Lean Six Sigma Green and Black Belt levels, this course is delivered by industry experts and offers an excellent window for you to gain hands-on training and networking benefits.

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A Guide to Six Sigma Projects

Quality Management Process: A Beginner’s Guide

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