What Is Continual Improvement? - Definition & Process

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  • 0:00 Definition of…
  • 0:30 Plan-Do-Check-Act Cycle
  • 1:51 Example of Continual…
  • 2:33 Management Philosophy
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Lesson Transcript
Dr. Douglas Hawks

Douglas has two master's degrees (MPA & MBA) and a PhD in Higher Education Administration.

Expert Contributor
Sean Harrington

Sean has two master's degrees from the University of Arkansas in Operations Management and Engineering. He has ten years of teaching experience.

Quality management is all about making things better through identifying improvement opportunities and striving towards a stated goal. Learn the definition of continual improvement, how it can be applied, and why it is so important to use.

Definition of Continual Improvement

If improvement is defined as making a change that results in a better outcome, then continual improvement is simply always identifying and making changes that result in better outcomes. Continual improvement is a concept that is central to quality management theories and programs. In fact, the ISO9001 framework for quality management suggests that continual improvement should be a permanent objective of the organization.

Plan-Do-Check-Act Cycle

W. Edwards Deming, considered by many to be the father of quality improvement, worked with Japanese automobile manufacturers in the mid-20th century on quality management techniques that helped them become known for the excellence of their work. As part of that work, Deming introduced the Plan-Do-Check-Act Cycle, or PDCA, of continual improvement.

PDCA is an easy-to-remember acronym for four critical steps of continual improvement. Changes that are made must first have an intentional and deliberate plan in place, not just for making the change, but for measuring the impact of the change. Once planned, it's time to do by implementing the change. After the change has occurred, the impact of the change needs to be checked in whatever way specified during the planning phase. Finally, when managers have information about the impact of the change, they act on either adjusting the original change or moving on to the next opportunity.

In an organization that has continual improvement as a primary objective, the PDCA cycle is constantly occurring. The idea of tolerance limits is completely forgotten and a specific, intentional goal is selected. Every part of the process that affects that goal is then analyzed and changed, either to help the outcome meet the goal or to meet the goal more efficiently.

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Additional Activities

Continual Improvement Activities

In this lesson, we learned about the continual improvement process within organizations, including the importance of standardization and feedback. In the following activities, we will explore some of the challenges associated with implementing a continual improvement program inside of a complex organization.

Activity #1

Identify some of the benefits of continual improvement within an organization.

  • What are the short-term benefits?
  • What are the long-term benefits?

Activity #2

Identify the costs of continual improvement. How can decision-makers determine if they should proceed with an improvement?

Activity #3

What are some of the challenges associated with continual improvement?

  • Can continual improvement be implemented in any organization, or are there organizations that have no more room for improvement?
  • Does employee turnover impact the ability of an organization to implement continual improvement?
  • Do individuals within an organization impact the effectiveness of continual improvement systems?
  • If so, what can an employer do to ensure all employees effectively participate in the continual improvement system?

Activity #4

How can an organization determine if continual improvement systems are working?

  • What are some examples of external factors that will impact the ability to measure the effectiveness of continual improvement systems?
  • What are some of the challenges in measuring the effectiveness of specific improvements?

Activity #5

Continuous improvement relies on input from employees throughout the organization. Pick an organization with which you are familiar, and determine how employees throughout the ranks and hierarchy can assist in process improvement.

  • What are some barriers preventing employees from participating in continual improvement? How can the employer eliminate these barriers?
  • Are there any systems the organization could put in place to enhance the volume and quality of feedback from employees?

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