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The What and Why of Continual Improvement

Virtually all organizations have made improvements over their lifetime. However, many report that the rate of change you are facing and the challenges it brings seems to be increasing. Is the rate of improvement being made enough to achieve your vision? Do you have the kind of organization that will create it? For example, what is occurring in your organization that keeps you up at night?

Could it be the need to…

  • Attract, develop, and retain a high performing workforce?
  • Increase the value of products/services to your customers and develop new ones?
  • Operate more efficiently– decreasing costs, shortening cycle times, improving quality
  • Generate the financial resources needed to grow?
  • Deal with change and the influx of technology, regulations, and cultural challenges?

If these do not bring up enough organizational challenges, try the following table. Simply answer the degree to which you agree or disagree.


This is where the need for and importance of continual improvement starts (the “Why” should anyone care) – with closing the gaps between where you are right now and the Vision you have for your stakeholders.

High performing organizations look at problems as opportunities for improvement and progress!

So, what is continual improvement? It is the quest to increase the rate of improvement and benefits in an organization, beyond historical norms and perhaps beyond what is thought possible, to the benefit of your customers, your teams, funders, and society. And, a primary way of achieving its goal is by unlocking the limitless capacity of an organization’s most valued resource – its people.

Many people have heard of or tried a form of continual improvement- quality, lean, six sigma, or other strategies and have achieved some success. There are differences however in these popularized approaches in their purpose, application and content. They are often described and applied differently (and incorrectly) as “a toolkit”, “only for manufacturing”, or “all about cost-cutting”.

When we use the term “continual improvement”, we refer to an integrated model that uses the best of the best of what was learned from the past. It is largely based on 1) the Quality Model and the excellent work of W Edwards Deming[1] who brought us an understanding of the role of leadership in high performing cultures and the use of data to solve problems and 2) the Lean Model, contributed to by many (see “Lean Thinking”, Womack and Jones), which brought us an increased focus on adding value for customers, eliminating waste in our work processes and a host of practical methods to do both and improve performance.

So, how can continual improvement help you and your organization start to close those gaps? Let’s try capturing its purpose and approach in a goal statement…




TO:  Help organizations improve at a rate greater than historical norms and perhaps even more than thought possible.


FOR: Providing benefits inclusively for customers, team members, society and the shareholders or funding sources.  This model is about achieving a win–win–win–win for all stakeholders (no win for one and penalize the others in this model).


BY: (the HOW of Continual Improvement)

  • Understanding and adding true value to an organizations’ customers and solving their problems
  • Relentlessly seeking and driving out waste throughout all of the organization’s work processes to make them more efficient.
  • Engaging the most valuable resource of an organization- its People; unlocking their creativity and giving them the opportunity, skills, and support to solve the organizations’ challenges.
  • Leadership that supports them with the system, structure and expectations required for success
  • Providing Focus on the critical areas of improvement
  • Continually Learning from inside and outside the organization and from improvement efforts Using reliable, data and information based Methods to understand and solve problems
  • Installing and operationalizing the improvements with reliable standardized work, training and feedback systems

SO THAT: Sustainable success for the organization is created and all stakeholders prosper.


  • Customers’ short and long-term success and satisfaction
  • All organization members engagement in organization improvements, increased personal achievement and improved quality of work life
  • Improved organization financial performance
  • Supplier relationships that create a win-win and help them improve
  • Communities thriving and with more career opportunities as a result of the organizations’ operations

CONDITIONS: Leadership with an organizational Vision, a passion for learning and excellence, and a belief in people.

Next time we’ll start looking at the details – HOW continual improvement works and WHAT BENEFITS and return on investment can be realized.