GuidesProduct developmentWhat is continuous improvement?

What is continuous improvement?

Last updated

22 March 2023

Reviewed by

Miroslav Damyanov

The one consistent thing about problems is that they catch us off-guard. Even the most diligent efforts can leave a project vulnerable to wasted resources and sudden challenges. Normally, it's only after the dust (and your heart rate!) settles that we can take stock and see what happened as an important learning experience.

For those preferring less painful learning experiences, we have “kaizen,” the continuous process improvement model. Designed to catch small hitches before they become big problems, continuous improvement can turn issues around before they start taxing resources. For many organizations, it's become the bedrock for quality control and smoother project pipelines—but first, a little groundwork is in order.

Continuous improvement definition

Continuous improvement is an ongoing process of discovering new ways to improve a procedure, product, or service. It's a central tenet of the lean business philosophy developed by Toyota in the 1950s to reduce company waste. If it sounds general, that's because it is. At its core is nothing less than continually striving for improvements in all areas, or "kaizen."

It involves identifying wasteful activities, then analyzing them to discover and resolve the cause(s) to prevent damaged products, services, or relationships. In practice, the continuous improvement model is a reliable, time-tested way to reduce company waste, protect assets, and boost reputation.

What are the main principles of continuous improvement?

The Kaizen Institute formally recognizes five core principles of continuous improvement:

  1. Know your customer

  2. Let it flow, targeting zero waste

  3. Go to "gemba" (i.e., where the action happens!)

  4. Empower people by organizing teams

  5. Be transparent—and speak with real data!

How continuous improvement can build a competitive edge

When put into action, continuous improvement reveals how procedures impact company efficiency and the customer experience. It gives a clearer understanding of internal systems and how they relate to your customers' needs and the effectiveness of your workflow. It requires making continual improvements to achieve a smooth, unbroken workflow.

Continuous improvement gives your staff the confidence to shift into meaningful action when identifying potential issues. It emphasizes the need to enhance processes that provide the greatest value while removing causes of waste.

"Waste" is broken down into three categories:

  • Mura – Unevenness or inconsistencies that interfere with a continuous workflow

  • Muda – The seven deadly wasteful processes:

  1. Transportation (needless movement of resources)

  2. Inventory (wasteful material processing)

  3. Motion (wasted effort)

  4. Waiting

  5. Overproduction

  6. Over-processing

  7. Defects

  • Muri – Overburdens and stresses

The goal is to improve inconsistencies that create waste or imbalanced burdens. Said otherwise, it uses any sign of waste or excessive stress as a clue for identifying wasteful processes. In the spirit of lean (Kaizen!), we could state it as follows:

Wasteful processes (muda) lead to inconsistency (mura) and overburdens (muri).

With continuous improvement, employees have the vision to confidently handle any situation threatening the company's bottom line. Now, what tools do they need to make it all happen?

Pro tip! Use the acronym "TIMWOOD" to remember the seven wasteful processes of muda.

The tools and techniques of continuous improvement

With a greater understanding of the theory, several established methods exist for putting the continuous improvement model into action. In concrete terms, kaizen involves a cyclical six-phase process:

  1. Identify a problem, and reframe it as an opportunity for growth

  2. Collect data and analyze the processes surrounding the problem

  3. Develop a more efficient solution

  4. Implement the proposal

  5. Study the effects of the new attempt, and adjust it as necessary

  6. Standardize the solution—and be ready to repeat step one as new opportunities arise


The plan-do-check-act model was invented by Dr. William Deming, an American engineer who worked closely with Toyota. It's a cyclic process that does exactly what it says: applying a plan towards a measurable goal, then continually evaluating and improving its results.

In greater detail, it involves:

  1. Plan with clear objectives toward measurable outcomes and decide what processes will lead to those results.

  2. Do what the plan calls for as closely as possible.

  3. Check the results, and compare them to what you expected. This is when the majority of data-gathering occurs, which helps you decide how your plan and/or goals can be improved.

  4. Act on these conclusions, modify the plan, and begin anew!

Once you've completed the plan-do-check-act cycle multiple times, you can compare each version of the plan. This will guide your new attempts to adjust the plan until the outcome aligns more tightly with your goals.

Root cause analysis (RCA)

With RCA, you inquire into the root cause of some type of waste. A cause is only considered a root cause when its negative effects are fully stopped. 

RCA begins with the original data revealing that there's a problem. This often points to a specific department or process. Continue asking probing questions to narrow your search down to specific actions that caused the waste or burden. You'll uncover a chain of events, where each cause is the effect of a deeper cause until you reach the root that began the wasteful chain of events. 

The major advantage of RCA is that it reveals mura or inconsistencies.

Lean kanban

Kanban means "sign" and relates to visual boards. If you've used Agile project management software, you've seen this in action.

Lean kanban is a way to visualize and categorize workflow, categorizing activities into three stages:

  1. Requested – What needs to be done?

  2. In progress – Who is doing it?

  3. Done – Where and when was it completed?

Different tasks are represented by cards, which can be traded between staff and departments. This is extremely useful for managers trying to determine the exact time and place waste occurs.

When to use continuous improvement

The beauty of continuous improvement is that it's adaptable and applies at any scale. It can be used any time someone notices waste and inefficiency. By thoroughly studying muda (the seven forms of waste), you'll begin to see when and where kaizen can remove inconsistencies, reduce waste, and distribute burdens more effectively.

Advantages of continuous improvement

According to the Kaizen Institute, it's possible to quantify numerous advantages of continuous improvement, including reduced project costs and overtime labor. 

Benefits also often include:

  • Increased sales and customer satisfaction

  • Decreased lead times

  • Less scrap, product returns, and manufacturing defects

  • Faster payment receipt

At the same time, Dr. Deming cautioned that the most significant ROIs of continuous improvement are very difficult to quantify. In true zen koan fashion, he remarked:

"[H]e that would run his company on visible figures alone will in time have neither company nor figures."

Still, he advised making a good-faith attempt to measure success whenever possible.

Disadvantages of continuous improvement

If poorly understood, continuous improvement can wreak havoc on the perfectionist mindset. For the inexperienced, it can also divert managerial attention away from active operations. Instead of letting it demand, well, continual attention, continuous improvement must save more resources than it takes up.

Examples of continuous improvement

For app developers, an RCA can reveal the root cause of a sudden flurry of complaints. Probing deeper, you may discover that the original development team spent more time trying to hone future-planned features than the core product.

If transporting raw goods, you may discover transportation-related waste, such as abnormally high fuel expenses. Looking at your shipping plans, it may become more obvious that unnecessary waiting caused distribution partners to send a partial truckload, thus causing the next truckload to be overfull. Both trucks thus incurred higher fuel costs than necessary.


What is continuous improvement in the workplace?

In practice, continuous improvement creates a greater continual workflow. Inefficiencies are more easily identified and reduced. It breeds greater transparency, allowing each team member to quickly find out the status of a given task, who's working on it, and how much bearing their own work has on overall efficiency.

Is continuous improvement the same as continuous delivery?

Continuous improvement can easily overlap with continuous delivery protocols, which also seek low-risk, fast deployment cycles. Continuous delivery also depends on continually improving processes—but strictly speaking, it's not a method for finding and stopping the cause of waste, like the continuous process improvement model.

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