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On Continuous Improvement

Core principles of continuous improvement are (1) process orientation, (2) improving and maintaining standards, and (3) people orientation. What are the fundamental behaviours for developing a culture of improvement?

Bruno Pešec
Bruno Pešec
7 min read
On Continuous Improvement

During the Second World War, U.S. government initiated an improvement programme “Training Within Industry”  with aims of providing education regarding the importance of continuous  improvement (CI). After the war, CI was taught to post-war Japan  through works of Deming and Juran (Shingo and Robinson, 1990). Based on those lectures, Japanese developed their own way of CI thinking, nowadays known as kaizen (Imai, 1986).

Defining Continuous Improvement

Some suggest that CI is fork of the existing quality initiatives (TQM for example), while others suggest that it is a standalone approach to achieving excellence (Gallagher et al., 1997; Caffyn, 1999; Oakland, 2001). Let’s take a look at some definitions of CI:

Principle of improvement. – Lillrank and Kano (1989)  
A company-wide process of focused and continuous incremental innovation. – Bessant et al. (1994)  
A philosophy consisting of improvement initiatives that increase successes and reduce failures. – Juergensen (2000)
Culture of sustained improvement targeting the elimination of waste in all systems and processes of an organization. – Bhuiyan and  Baghel (2005)

Core principles of Continuous Improvement

Berger (1997) uses work of Imai (1986) to map out three core features of CI.

Principle 1 – Process orientation

Kaizen is process-oriented, i.e. before results  can be improved, processes must be improved, as opposed to  result-orientation where outcomes are all that counts.

Principle 2 – Improving and maintaining standards

Lasting improvements can only be achieved if  innovations are combined with an ongoing effort to maintain and improve  standard performance levels.

Principle 3 – People orientation

Kaizen is people-oriented and should involve  everyone in the organization from top management to workers at the shop  floor. Further more, Kaizen is based on a belief in people’s inherent  desire for quality and worth, and management has to believe that it is  going to “pay” in the long run.

Implementing Continous Improvement

Bhuiyan and  Baghel (2005) have identified three levels at which CI is usually implemented, and  suggest that implementation should be done at all levels in order to  maximize gains. Three aforementioned levels are management, group and  individual level. Although CI has been developed in organizations with  highly standardized products and processes, it can be applied in various  work environments. Berger (1997) classifies five organizational designs (Table 1) for CI based on  dimensions of task design (individual or integrated) and improvement  task (parallel or integrated).

Table 1: Classifications of organizational design for CI

Organizational design Description
Quality control circles A group of workers who do the same or similar work, who meet regularly to identify, analyze and solve work-related problems
Organic CI Multifunctional work groups integrated with improvement activities
Expert task force CI Temporary expert task force
Wide-focus CI Combination of organic CI and expert task force CI for temporary operations
Individual CI Individuals present ideas, specialists implement them

A set of generic CI behaviours has been identified in works by Caffyn (1999) and Bhuiyan and  Baghel (2005).  Those behaviours are considered to be the fundamentals for development  of CI capability within an organization, regardless of its type or size.  These elements are as follows:

  1. Employee demonstrates awareness and understanding of the organization’s aims and objectives
  2. Individual groups use the organization’s strategic goals and objectives to focus and prioritize the improvement activity
  3. The enabling mechanisms used to encourage involvement in CI are monitored and developed
  4. Ongoing assessment ensures that the organization’s structure,  systems and procedures, and the approach and mechanism used to develop  CI, constantly reinforce and support each other
  5. Managers at all levels display active commitment to, and leadership of, CI
  6. Throughout the organization people engage proactively in incremental improvement
  7. There is effective working across internal and external boundaries at all levels
  8. People learn from their own and from other’s experience, both positive and negative
  9. The learning of individuals and groups is captured and deployed
  10. People are guided by a shared set of cultural value underpinning CI as they go about their everyday work

Juergensen (2000) proposes seven critical concepts (Figure 1) for successful CI practices  which should be applied cyclically. These concepts are sequenced  strategically and appropriately as follows:

  1. Leaders accept that improvement is necessary
  2. Leaders agree on a proven continuous improvement process and approach
  3. Leaders engage and educate a guiding coalition of key stakeholders to lead improvement initiatives
  4. Leaders work with key stakeholders to define improvement aims, initiatives, and values
  5. Key stakeholders lead the design of improvement solutions
  6. Key stakeholders lead the implementation and appraisal of improvement solutions
  7. Leaders and stakeholders sustain the continuous improvement cycle

The best known CI methodologies, according to Bhuiyan and  Baghel (2005),  are lean manufacturing, six sigma, the balanced scorecard and lean six  sigma. I’ll write more about Lean, Six Sigma, and Lean Six Sigma in  future posts.

Successful Continuous Improvement Practices
Figure 1: Successful Continuous Improvement Practices (Jorgensen, 2000)

Redefining Continuous Improvement

During my literature review of Continuous Improvement, I found most  definitions of it lacking. Conceptual definitions should show evidence  of inclusivity, exclusivity, differentiability, clarity,  communicability, consistency and parsimony (Hempel, 1970). Based on  conducted literature review, I propose a new definition for Continuous Improvement:

Continuous improvement is a company-wide  proactive approach to improvement utilizing incremental and breakthrough  changes with aim of achieving business excellence. – Pešec (2012)

Key points of proposed definition are:

  • company-wide,
  • proactive,
  • incremental changes,
  • breakthrough changes, and
  • business excellence.

With terms company-wide and proactive it is emphasized that improvement should be an organizational effort actively searching for improvement opportunities. Terms incremental changes and breakthrough changes emphasize that itinerary for improvement should be both short and long  term. Instituting a quality culture with emphasis on incremental  improvements supports innovations achieved by breakthrough changes. If  changes are only incremental there is danger of losing opportunities due  to lack of innovations, while focusing only on breakthrough changes  there is danger of losing opportunities due to unsustainable  innovations. Hence, synergy between incremental and breakthrough  improvements would yield better results. Term business excellence emphasizes that opportunities for improvement should be sought in all  elements and at all levels of business, from operations to management,  and that ultimate goal is achieving excellence.

Concluding Remarks

In this post I presented several definitions of Continuous Improvement, three core principles that Continuous Improvement shares  with Kaizen, ten generic behaviours you need to develop Continuous  Improvement capabilities within your organisation and seven critical  concepts for successful Continuous Improvement practices. At the end I  propose a new definition for Continuous Improvement, in an attempt to  satisfy Hempel’s (1970) requirements for conceptual definitions.


Berger, A., 1997. Continuous improvement and kaizen: standardization and organizational designs. Integrated manufacturing systems, 8(2), pp.110-117.

Bessant, J., Caffyn, S., Gilbert, J., Harding, R. and Webb, S., 1994. Rediscovering continuous improvement. Technovation, 14(1), pp.17-29.

Bhuiyan, N. and Baghel, A., 2005. An overview of continuous improvement: from the past to the present. Management Decision, 43(5), pp.761-771.

Caffyn, S., 1999. Development of a continuous improvement self-assessment tool. International Journal of Operations & Production Management, 19(11), pp.1138-1153.

Gallagher, M., Austin, S. and Caffyn, S., 1997. Continuous Improvement in Action: The Journey of Eight Companies: Strategies for Successful Implementation and Operation. Kogan Page.

Hempel, C.G., 1970. Methods of concept formation in science.  Formations of the Unity of Science. University of Chicago Press,  Chicago, IL.

Imai, M., 1986. Kaizen (Ky’zen), the key to Japan’s competitive success. Random House Business Division.

Juergensen, T., 2000. Continuous improvement: Mindsets, capability, process, tools and results. Unpublished manuscript.

Lillrank, P.M. and Kano, N., 1989. Continuous improvement: quality control circles in Japanese industry (No. 19). Center for Japanese Studies University of Michigan.

Oakland, J.S., 2001. Total organizational excellence: Achieving world-class performance. Routledge.

Pešec, B., 2012. Implementing Lean Six Sigma: The effective  integration of two improvement methodologies. Specialization project,  Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

Shingo, S., and Robinson, A., 1990. Modern approaches to manufacturing improvement : the Shingo system. Productivity Press.

This article is a part of Quality Management series:

On Managing for Quality
Historical overview of quality movement from inspection to strategic management.
Quality Philosophers
Deming, Juran, Ishikawa, and Crosby changed the world of quality management forever. These are their most significant contributions.
Quality Management Systems
Comparison of Japanese Total Quality Control, Total Quality Management, Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge, Lean, Business Process Reengineering, and Six Sigma.
Quality Management Frameworks
Organisations can use quality management frameworks to benchmark the quality performance on their journey to excellence.
On Continuous Improvement
Core principles of continuous improvement are (1) process orientation, (2) improving and maintaining standards, and (3) people orientation. What are the fundamental behaviours for developing a culture of improvement?
Quality ManagementContinuous ImprovementKaizenLean

Bruno Pešec

I help business leaders innovate profitably at scale.


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