What Is Continuous Improvement?

Published on:

March 12, 2021

what is continuous improvement

What Is Continuous Improvement?

Continuous improvement is also known as continual improvement, though there’s subtle nuances between them we’ll dive into shortly. 

The term in either form, refers to the method of an ongoing effort to improve aspects of a business. This could be products, processes or services. Something as simple as correcting a spelling mistake in a manual can be considered continuous improvement. As long as the goal is to continually improve aspects of your business.

As we mentioned above, continuous and continual improvement are used almost interchangeably. But there’s arguably a difference between them in approach.

Continual improvement is the broader term, popularized by Deming. It refers to a more general process of improvement covering many different approaches, techniques and areas.

Continuous improvement can be considered a subset of continual improvement. There is a more precise focus on incremental linear improvement upon an already existing process. Some even associate the term continuous improvement with specific models within the nomenclature.

Regardless, for the purposes of this article, we’ll be looking at the broader term definition used by Deming. This idea is any methodology you use to ensure your business is running as efficiently and effectively as possible.

This is achieved through systematically and periodically examining and improving your processes. This could be to change software, address bottlenecks and countless other examples. 

There are many different methods to achieve continuous improvement, the Deming Cycle being just one example. But they can all be categorised into two groups, incremental or breakthrough improvements. 

Incremental Continuous Improvement

As the name suggests, incremental continuous improvement is about making small changes to aspects of your business. Most often, it’s done ad-hoc, resolving problems as they are discovered. 

It’s a cost-effective approach to continuous improvement with minimal risk involved. This is because the changes are usually addressing minor flaws in current processes or services. It’s not the large scale change that may open Pandora's box so to speak.

A good example would be if you notice some small problem in a task you do regularly. Lets use reporting on analytics as an example. You notice the reports are missing some additional information which would be beneficial to include. You would simply include this information and drop an email to your team to ask them to include this information in on-going reports. It’s a small improvement, but if these small improvements happen continuously, it can lead to long-term better practices across the business.

You don’t need to review the entire process to undertake incremental improvement. They’re the small changes you make every day to create more efficient processes for everyone. 

It’s important to communicate changes with this approach though. If everyone on a team is using this approach and making small changes, you’ll end up with incoherency and confusion. 

Breakthrough Continuous Improvement

Breakthrough continuous improvement refers to making large changes to processes, services, software or more.

This type of continuous improvement starts with reviewing the chosen aspect with your entire team. Collect thoughts, frustrations, challenges and ideas and decide together on what the changes to improve this aspect should be.

The breakthrough approach tends to cost more in terms of time and money, but can often result in much more effective overall improvements. 

A good example of breakthrough continuous improvement would be updating your CRM software. Your whole team would meet to discuss what issues they have with the current software, where it’s causing problems for customers and what functions they’d like to see in the new CRM software. From here, you can decide which new CRM software provider to go with and eventually, change over CRM platforms. It’s a large scale update, with its own challenges to manage, but it brings about a much better customer experience and your staff are happier using the new system as it’s quicker and easier to use. 

Similarly to the above, communication is key. Large changes brought about without discussion with the relevant team members involved is a recipe for chaos and disaster. Decisions made by management with no justification, explanation and seemingly little regard for those actually using the system will lead to frustrations across the business. 

There’s no right or wrong approach when it comes to continuous improvement. In fact, you should generally be using both approaches to ensure your business is running as efficiently as possible. 

Benefits of Continuous Improvement

The benefits of continuous improvement are obvious, but so few businesses actively strive to continually improve, particularly internal processes. When decisions for change are made, they’re rarely effectively discussed and communicated with all relevant parties.

Taking an active approach to continuous improvement avoids this. There is always some room for incremental continuous improvement, even if your processes are documented and consistent, you’ll still find ways to do them better with time. Doing this allows your team to always be working more effectively, accurately and efficiently. 

Thanks to constant changes in technology, breakthrough continuous improvement is always necessary. There will always be new software with features that can revolutionize the way you do business. There will always be a better CMS to redesign your website on. The examples are endless, but this kind of large scale change helps businesses remain competitive long-term. 

It’s a very simple concept that some employees may do naturally. But having a set program for improving aspects of your business means your company is always striving to be better, as opposed to surviving.

About Paul Freudenberg

Paul Freudenberg is a business productivity coach and consultant with a focus on operational excellence delivering improved profitability and business performance, and Founder of Awardaroo in 2005. With over 20 years experience in complex project and programme management and 15 years in business improvement, Paul has set the mission of Awardaroo to raise UK Productivity from one of the lowest in the G7 to one of the highest by 2030.