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What is continuous improvement and why is it important?

Continuous improvement (CI) is a critical concept across quality management systems and frameworks – especially as part of ISO 9001 quality management systems. It refers to the ongoing process of identifying, evaluating and implementing changes to improve the efficiency, effectiveness, and performance of a system, product or service.

What is continuous improvement?

Continuous improvement – often known as Kaizen in the realm of Lean methodology – is an ongoing effort to improve products, services or processes incrementally over time. These improvements can be minor improvements implemented regularly in daily operations or large-scale breakthrough improvements that may occur as a result of a project or initiative.

There are several approaches that can support continuous improvement:

  • Customer focus – Understanding customer needs and constantly striving to meet or exceed their expectations is at the heart of continuous improvement.

  • Employee involvement – Every member of the organisation is involved and accountable in identifying areas for improvement. Empowered teams can help drive the improvement process, spotting opportunities for improvement and implementing programmes successfully.

  • Incremental changes – Continuous improvement typically focuses on making small changes consistently over time. These incremental changes can add up to significant results, often with less risk and disruption compared to larger, more radical changes.

  • Measurement and feedback – Regularly measured and reviewed metrics can provide the basis for identifying improvement opportunities. Feedback loops allow organisations to learn from each attempt, whether successful or not.

  • Problem-solving – Systematic problem-solving methods are commonly used in continuous improvement efforts. These might include methodologies such as Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA), Six Sigma or Lean.

  • Long-term commitment – Continuous improvement is not a one-time effort but an ongoing commitment that should be baked into an organisation’s culture – this can require long-term dedication.

  • Efficiency – By identifying and eliminating waste or non-value-adding activities, continuous improvement seeks to enhance efficiency and effectiveness.

What are the four stages of continuous improvement?

The concept of continuous improvement is often depicted as a cycle since it’s a never-ending process. A commonly used model is the Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) cycle, also known as the Deming Cycle or Shewhart Cycle, which presents continuous improvement in four stages.

Plan Do Check Act diagram cycle infographic

Plan

Identify an opportunity and plan for change. This stage involves understanding the current situation, identifying the problem or opportunity for improvement, setting measurable objectives and devising a plan to achieve those objectives.

Do

Implement the change on a small scale as a test. This could mean changing a process, developing a new product feature or implementing a new procedure. It’s crucial to document all changes and collect data for comparison.

Check

Use data to analyse the results of the change and determine whether it made a difference. Compare the outcome with the expected results to verify the effectiveness of the change. If the change did not deliver the expected results, it’s necessary to understand why.

Act

If the change is successful, implement it on a broader scale and continuously assess your results. If the change did not work, repeat the cycle with a different plan.

After the final step, the cycle begins again. The goal is for this to be a constant process, with each cycle building upon the improvements identified in the last.

Read our guide to quality management systems.

Why is continuous improvement important for organisations?

Continuous improvement is critically important for any organisation. It can lead to higher quality products and services, greater efficiency, increased customer satisfaction and – ultimately – a more competitive and successful organisation.

Key benefits include:

Improved quality

Continuous improvement leads to enhanced quality of products and services. Regular evaluations and adjustments ensure standards are not just being met but are also steadily increasing.

Increased efficiency

By streamlining processes, eliminating waste and using resources more effectively, you can increase efficiency and productivity.

Cost savings

Process improvements often lead to cost savings through more efficient use of materials, reduced waste, improved worker productivity or reduced overheads.

Customer satisfaction

Better quality products and services, along with improved response to customer needs and feedback, can boost customer satisfaction. This results in customer loyalty, repeat business and potential new customers through positive customer advocacy.

Employee engagement and satisfaction

A continuous improvement culture encourages employee involvement. Employees who see their suggestions being implemented and making a difference may be more likely to be satisfied and engaged with their work.

Competitive advantage

Consistent ongoing improvements can lead to significant competitive advantages over time. Organisations can build better products, offer superior services, operate more efficiently and react quickly to changes in the business environment.

Enhancing innovation

Continuous improvement can help foster a culture of innovation by encouraging new ideas and risk-taking. This can lead to breakthrough products and services or new ways of working.

Compliance and risk management

Continuous improvement in a QMS can help ensure compliance with industry regulations and standards, such as ISO 9001. It also helps identify and mitigate potential risks before they become a problem.

Read our guide to using customer feedback to drive quality management processes.

Continuous improvement guide - PDCA - team working on plan do check act

Which ISO 9001 requirements are affected by continual improvement?

ISO 9001:2015 – the latest version of the standard – includes continuous improvement as one of its seven key quality management principles.

According to this principle, organisations should strive to constantly improve their overall performance to meet customer needs and expectations better and achieve broader organisational objectives.

Continuous improvement is an underlying principle driving the application and intention of the ISO 9001:2015 standard – and there are some key areas where continual improvement has a significant impact:

  • Quality management system (Clause 4.4) – Requires the organisation to establish, implement, maintain and continually improve a quality management system, including the processes needed and their interactions.

  • Leadership and commitment (Clause 5.1.1) – Senior management must demonstrate leadership and commitment concerning customer focus by ensuring customer requirements are met and promoting the use of the process approach and risk-based thinking. They must ensure that the quality policy and objectives are established and compatible with the organisation’s strategic direction and the QMS.

  • Risk and opportunities (Clause 6.1) – The organisation should continually improve by understanding risks and opportunities that must be addressed to ensure the QMS can consistently achieve its intended results, enhance desirable effects, and prevent undesired effects.

  • Quality objectives and planning to achieve them (Clause 6.2) – Quality objectives consistent with the quality policy and relevant to the conformity of products and services must be established. These objectives should be maintained and updated as part of the continuous improvement process. It’s a good idea to ensure that objectives are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound (SMART) – a crucial approach for effective continuous improvement.

  • Operational planning and control (Clause 8.1) – The organisation must plan, implement and control processes to meet requirements for the provision of products and services and to implement actions determined in Clause 6.

  • Monitoring, measurement, analysis and evaluation (Clause 9.1) – The organisation needs to determine what needs to be monitored and measured, the methods for monitoring and measuring, as well as when it will be performed. This information should be analysed and evaluated to ensure effective implementation and maintenance of the QMS.

  • Internal audit (Clause 9.2) – The organisation must conduct internal audits at planned intervals to provide information on whether the QMS conforms to the organisation’s own requirements and the requirements of ISO 9001.

  • Management review (Clause 9.3) – Senior management must review the organisation’s QMS at planned intervals to ensure its continuing suitability, adequacy and effectiveness. This review must include assessing opportunities for improvement.

  • Improvement (Clause 10) – The organisation must improve by reacting to nonconformities and taking corrective actions. It must look for opportunities to improve processes, products and services, particularly with future customer needs in mind.

Read our guide to the benefits of a quality management system.

What makes a successful CI programme?

Implementing a successful continuous improvement (CI) programme requires a strategic approach, commitment from all levels of the organisation and a focus on both short-term results and long-term culture change. Successful CI programmes are those that are better adapted to fit an organisation’s culture, capabilities and needs.

Key elements of a successful CI program can include:

  • Leadership – Leadership should embrace and champion the CI program. They need to actively participate, provide resources and create an environment that encourages continuous improvement.

  • Culture of improvement – A successful CI program requires fostering a culture that values and rewards improvement. This includes encouraging ideas from everyone within the organisation, celebrating successes and promoting learning from failures.

  • Clear goals and objectives – The goals of the CI program should align with the organisation’s overall strategic objectives. They should be clearly communicated, measurable and broken down into achievable targets.

  • Employee empowerment – Employees should be encouraged to identify and implement improvements. This can include providing training on CI concepts and tools, ensuring they have the necessary resources, and recognising their contributions.

  • Structured approach – Use a structured methodology such as PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) or DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyse, Improve, Control). These provide a systematic approach to problem-solving and improvement.

  • Measurement and evaluation – Regularly measure and evaluate the performance against the set goals and objectives. Use data to drive decisions, monitor progress and identify opportunities for further improvement.

  • Good communication – Regularly communicate the progress and results of the CI program. This keeps everyone informed, maintains engagement and demonstrates the value of the CI programme.

  • Continuous learning – Encourage learning and knowledge sharing within the organisation. This can include training, workshops and sharing success stories and best practices.

  • Commitment to the long term – Continuous improvement is a long-term commitment. It requires patience, persistence and a focus on gradual, incremental improvements over time.

  • Flexibility – The CI program should be adaptable to changes in the organisational environment or strategic objectives. This means re-evaluating goals and methods as necessary and being open to new ideas and approaches.

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Continuous improvement guide - PDCA - featured image
Holly Fitzpatrick
Holly Fitzpatrick

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