Continuous Improvement

Continuous improvement is an ongoing effort to improve products, services or processes. These efforts can seek “incremental” improvement over time or “breakthrough” improvement all at once.

Among the most widely used tools for continuous improvement is a four-step quality model—the plan-do-check-act (PDCA) cycle, also known as Deming Cycle or Shewhart Cycle:

  • Plan: Identify an opportunity and plan for change.
  • Do: Implement the change on a small scale.
  • Check: Use data to analyze the results of the change and determine whether it made a difference.
  • Act: If the change was successful, implement it on a wider scale and continuously assess your results. If the change did not work, begin the cycle again.

Other widely used methods of continuous improvement — such as Six Sigma, Lean, and Total Quality Management — emphasize employee involvement and teamwork; measuring and systematizing processes; and reducing variation, defects and cycle times.

Continuous or Continual?
The terms continuous improvement and continual improvement are frequently used interchangeably. But some quality practitioners make the following distinction:

  • Continual improvement: a broader term preferred by W. Edwards Deming to refer to general processes of improvement and encompassing “discontinuous” improvements—that is, many different approaches, covering different areas.
  • Continuous improvement: a subset of continual improvement, with a more specific focus on linear, incremental improvement within an existing process. Some practitioners also associate continuous improvement more closely with techniques of statistical process control.

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Basic Concepts