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Continual Improvement

Continual Improvement

Continual 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. Continual improvement, in regard to organizational quality and performance, focuses on improving customer satisfaction through continuous and incremental improvements to processes, including by removing unnecessary activities and variations.

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

This cycle is simply illustrated in the diagram below with quality assurance shown as the “chock” behind the wheel or circle to ensuring that the chance of sliding backwards in arrested:

Continual Improvement Diagram

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.

The PDCA cycle is an effective team-involvement tool and forms the basis for a Lessons Learnt database and Best Practices, which are continually reinforced at leadership level and reflected in changed KPI’s, updated business processes, and continual modelling and monitoring.

Rigorous application of the PDCA cycle often realizes step-change while sharing of Lessons Learnt through a Knowledge Management system ensures that change is sustained, despite leadership changes or staff turnover issues, for example.

Continual or continuous improvement?

The terms continual improvement and continuous 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.

The moment you stop looking to improve is the moment you open yourself up to competitors making inroads as they find ways to improve quality or reduce costs. Perfection will never be achieved, and thus improvement is always possible. That’s the principle behind the Continual Improvement Cycle.

First developed by Deming in the 50’s, it is the rigorous application of these simple quality management principles that was instrumental in Japan’s development as a nation producing world-class motor vehicles and electronic products. It is now widely applied across the world in best-practice organizations or all sizes and types in a multitude of countries around the world.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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