Continuous Improvement Plan – Definition

Cite this article as:"Continuous Improvement Plan – Definition," in The Business Professor, updated December 15, 2019, last accessed October 27, 2020,


Continuous Improvement Plan Definition

A continuous (continual) improvement plan is a string of processes and procedures that a company puts in place to improve its services and products. This plan entails an ongoing review of a company’s products and services with a bid to take actual actions that will improve them. Usually, companies constantly evaluate their products and services with the aim of improving them and guaranteeing customers’ satisfaction.

There are two main frameworks used for continuous improvement plan, these are

  • Kaizen approach. and
  • The Shewhart Cycle otherwise known as PDCA.

A Little More on What is a Continuous Improvement Plan

Aside from the Kaizen and the Shewhart Cycle frameworks used for continuous improvement plan, this plan also uses all quality methodologies such as the ISO, Baldrige, Six Sigma and others.

In the Kaizen approach, the major features include gradual improvement process and not radical ones. This approach accommodates small changes over time instead of ‘sudden’ breakthrough.

The Shewhart Cycle (PDCA), on the other hand, has four key features which are; plan, do, check, act or adjust.

Why Continuous Improvement Is Implemented

Companies constantly evaluate their products and services so as to improve on them and deliver customer valued products and services. Companies and organizations that implement continuous improvement plans do not only strengthen the quality of their products and service but also improve their brand, thereby, attracting a larger customer base. The continuous improvement plan that a company might implement can either be a ‘step-by-step’ improvement or a ‘sudden improvement,’ often regarded as a breakthrough improvement.

4 Different Industry Applications of Continuous Improvement

There are four categories of industries that implement and apply the continuous improvement plan. They are;

  • Process-Focused Industries
  • Service Industries
  • Software Companies
  • Hardware-Product Applications:

These industries are constantly in search of ways to improve their products after inefficiencies related to the products are identified. Through the continuous improvement frameworks, manufacturers enhance the quality of their products, improve the efficiencies of business operations, and continuously drive customers’ satisfaction.

These industries take into cognizance the reviews or feedbacks they get from their customers, they examine the reviews and find out ways to get better in product delivery.

The Shewhart Cycle

The Shewhart Cycle otherwise known as PDCA is a continuous improvement framework premised on four major areas which are;

  • Plan: This entails identifying the gaps in a product or service, if there is none, identify an opportunity in the product that creates a room for improvement.
  • Do: After mapping out a plan, test-run the plan, the aspects of the products or services that accommodate changes
  • Check: Observe the results  and changes that are noticeable
  • Act or Adjust: if the test is successful, execute it on a larger scale.

PDCA is a cycle, this means the processes are non-stop. Also, if after completing the cycle, failure is recorded, the processes are to be repeated or the business drafts a new plan that will make the processes work better.


The Kaizen continuous improvement framework originated from Japan, it is a Japanese term translated as Kai means change and Zen means ‘for the better.’ This model thrives on gradual (incremental) improvements. Despite that everything can be improved, the improvement should come gradually as this would yield desirable results and enhance the overall quality of the product or service. Also, the Kaizen approach to continuous improvement comes with a simplified procedure in which improvements are made to products in a relaxed way, the procedures are done step-by-step to enhance overall quality.

Continuous Improvement Is a Way of Life

Continuous improvement is not only done by businesses and corporations that wish to improve the quality of their products and services, but it is also a habit that professionals and individuals have imbibed over time. This is exhibited in the way people are constantly in search of knowledge and seek to get better by taking additional education, earning professional designations, among others.

Individuals and organizations that strive for excellence and are in pursuit of greatness make continuous improvement more than a process but a lifestyle. Organizations with continuous improvement plans also incorporate this plan into their employees, hence, it becomes a workplace culture which in turn translates into a lifestyle for the company employees.

References for Continuous Improvement Plan

Academic Research on Continuous Improvement Plan

The role of performance measurement in continuous improvement, Bond, T. C. (1999). The role of performance measurement in continuous improvement. International Journal of Operations & Production Management, 19(12), 1318-1334. A research study of both kaizen and re‐engineering programmes in a leading international company indicated that the process life cycle has four characteristic stages. A newly designed process commonly suffers from a variety of teething problems during the initial post‐commissioning phase. Once these have been eradicated achieving smooth product flow becomes important in accordance with JIT philosophy. A stable process may be improved by applying a kaizen continuous improvement programme. A dramatic step‐change in performance may be achieved by radical re‐engineering. It is suggested that each of these phases has its own characteristics which should be taken into account when determining performance metrics and designing approaches to process monitoring and control. Explicitly recognising the stage a process has reached in the life cycle provides guidance for practitioners effectively to direct and manage a programme of performance improvement.

Continuous improvement and kaizen: standardization and organizational designs, Berger, A. (1997). Continuous improvement and kaizen: standardization and organizational designs. Integrated manufacturing systems, 8(2), 110-117. Proposes to delineate a set of core principles from the Japanese kaizen concept and illustrate the contingent nature of the design and organization of continuous improvement (CI) processes, especially with respect to product/process standardization and work design. Given differences in the overall degree of standardization related to product design and process choice, two types of standards to reduce variability at operator work process level should be considered: indirect system standards, e.g. for skills, organization, information and communication; and direct standard operating procedures (SOPs). It is proposed that two team‐based organizational designs for CI (organic CI and wide‐focus CI) are functionally equivalent to the Japanese kaizen model, particularly when combining indirect system standards of skills with a group task design and low degree of product/process standardization. Expert task forces and suggestion systems are complementary organizational designs for improvement processes, particularly when work design is based on individual tasks and direct SOPs.

Development of a continuous improvement self-assessment tool, Caffyn, S. (1999). Development of a continuous improvement self-assessment tool. International Journal of Operations & Production Management, 19(11), 1138-1153. During the 1990s a growing number of firms have been encouraging continuous improvement (CI) in all aspects of working life, and some impressive results have been achieved. However, the process of implementing CI is long and challenging. Companies need to know what progress they have made, and the outcome of any interventions, in order to consolidate and further develop CI. The CIRCA CI self‐assessment tool is a research‐based tool which helps users to make an objective assessment of CI in their company. It is designed to be used by any organisation regardless of size, industry, length of time working with CI, and the particular approach taken. The tool went through several phases of development, culminating in a paper‐based Version 3.0 in 1997. Since then further development and testing of the tool has taken place in the UK and abroad, and future plans include an electronic version.

High-involvement innovation through continuous improvement, Bessant, J., & Caffyn, S. (1997). High-involvement innovation through continuous improvement. International Journal of Technology Management, 14(1), 7-28. Continuous improvement (CI) in all aspects of the business is essential for meeting the challenge of today’s turbulent environments. One increasingly popular strategy for enabling continuous improvement is through mobilising a high level of involvement of the workforce in sustained incremental problem-solving. Although the potential benefits of such high involvement innovation are considerable, implementing programmes of this kind is not easy. This paper reports on a five year research programme exploring implementation issues in CI and presents a framework model for the development of CI which draws upon extensive case study work. In particular, it identifies a series of levels of CI performance and the blocks and enablers associated with them.

An evolutionary model of continuous improvement behaviour, Bessant, J., Caffyn, S., & Gallagher, M. (2001). An evolutionary model of continuous improvement behaviour. Technovation, 21(2), 67-77. In today’s complex and turbulent environments the need for continuous improvements in products and processes is widely recognised. But the mechanisms whereby such a continual stream of innovation can be achieved are often less clearly identified. One option is to mobilise a high proportion of the workforce in a process of sustained incremental problem-solving, but experience with this approach suggests that successfully doing so is far from simple. Although many programmes for ‘kaizen’ or ‘continuous improvement’ based on employee involvement are started, the failure rate is high. This paper reports on extensive case-study based research exploring how high involvement in continuous improvement can be built and sustained as an organisational capability. It argues that this phenomenon needs to be viewed as a cluster of behavioural changes which establish innovation routines in the enterprise, and presents a reference model for assessment of progress in the evolution of such capability.

Need radical innovation and continuous improvement? Integrate process reengineering and TQM, Davenport, T. H. (1993). Need radical innovation and continuous improvement? Integrate process reengineering and TQM. Planning review, 21(3), 6-12. Initiatives to enhance operational performance can include some programs that strive for continuous improvement and others that attempt radical innovation. But implementation depends upon learning how to integrate the substantially different approaches of total quality management (TQM) and business reengineering.

Developing strategic continuous improvement capability, Bessant, J., & Francis, D. (1999). Developing strategic continuous improvement capability. International Journal of Operations & Production Management, 19(11), 1106-1119. In developing CI capability, organisations need to move to a level of development in which strategic goals are communicated and deployed and where improvement activity is guided by a process of monitoring and measurement against these strategic objectives. Policy deployment of this kind is more prevalent in Japanese examples and in a handful of cases in Western firms. Implementing it poses significant challenges and requires a different and additional toolkit of enabling resources. This paper reports on the experience of policy deployment in Japan and in Western enterprises and explores some of the implementation issues raised.

The adoption of continuous improvement and innovation strategies in Australian manufacturing firms, Terziovski, M., & Sohal, A. S. (2000). The adoption of continuous improvement and innovation strategies in Australian manufacturing firms. Technovation, 20(10), 539-550. The purpose of this study was to investigate the adoption of Continuous Improvement (CI) strategies of a large random sample of Australian manufacturing firms. The study was undertaken as part of a wider international survey investigating continuous improvement practices in Australia, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands, and the UK. The survey was mailed to 1200 managers responsible for manufacturing organisations in Australia. A response rate of 32 per cent was obtained. The quantitative data was analysed using a Statistical Package for Social Sciences (SPSS). The data analysis revealed that the motivation to adopt CI was related to improved quality conformance, increased productivity, reduced costs, and improvement in delivery reliability. Past experiences of CI were positively correlated with the length of time the process had been in use; the breadth of its application; the percentage of employees actively involved in the program (for operators and non-operators) and training in problem solving. Therefore, the critical implication for managers is that future management development initiatives need to include strategies to assist managers with their understanding of the potential benefits of the CI process, based on “soft” management practices.

Continuous improvement, Bernhardt, V. L. (2004). Continuous improvement. It takes more than test scores. ASCA Leadership, 16-19.

An overview of benchmarking process: a tool for continuous improvement and competitive advantage, Elmuti, D., & Kathawala, Y. (1997). An overview of benchmarking process: a tool for continuous improvement and competitive advantage. Benchmarking for Quality Management & Technology, 4(4), 229-243. The continuous pursuit of excellence is the underlying and ever present goal of benchmarking practices. Benchmarking is an external focus on internal activities, functions, or operations in order to achieve continuous improvement. It is the process of judging a company’s processes or products by comparing them to the world’s best, including those in other industries. Benchmarking is emerging in leading‐edge companies as a tool for obtaining the information needed to support continuous improvement and gain competitive advantage. In order to benchmark effectively, there needs to be a strong strategic focus and some flexibility in achieving the goals set forth by management. Perhaps the most important aspects of effective implementation are adequate planning, training, and open interdepartmental communication.

Continuous improvement capability: assessment within one case study organisation, Kerrin, M. (1999). Continuous improvement capability: assessment within one case study organisation. International Journal of Operations & Production Management, 19(11), 1154-1167. Continuous improvement (CI) programmes have been recognised as one way of contributing to the productivity and efficiency within the manufacturing setting. However, the development of a sustainable CI programme has proved more problematic and in some cases fails to proceed any further than one‐off improvement activities. The research presented here illustrates the utility of Bessant and Caffyn’s framework for the development of CI capability, by assessing the structure of CI within one case study organisation. The structure of the CI programme and examples of CI activities provide evidence of the link to top down strategic business targets. The discussion suggests that the organisation has moved to a “goal oriented CI” where there is formal deployment of strategic goals through the structure of the CI activities and the relationship with business activities. Practical and theoretical implications of using this framework are considered.

From continuous improvement to continuous innovation, Cole, R. E. (2002). From continuous improvement to continuous innovation. Total quality management, 13(8), 1051-1056. The aim of this paper is to demonstrate the need for an alternative to how those in the quality community think about continuous improvement in those business environments characterized by rapid change and uncertainty. This involves a re-examination of the role of error and a recognition of the weakness of conventional marketing techniques in understanding customer needs. Compared with conventional thinking about continuous improvement, the probe-and-learn process and rapid prototyping are presented as better suited to dynamic but uncertain business environments. Probe-and-learn is seen as a new form of Plan Do Check Act (PDCA) that underweights ‘Plan’ and overweights ‘Do’ in a rapid-fire iterative process. The author examines Beta testing as a mode of probe-and-learn. Finally it is argued that probe-and-learn is applicable throughout the production chain.

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