What is Continuous Improvement and Why is it Important?



It’s a powerful force that works behind the scenes at the world’s most successful companies. Every day, it fosters evolution and innovation. It’s continuous improvement, a process that’s essential for long-term business success.

CI Basics

As the name suggests, continuous improvement (CI) is an ongoing effort to improve products, processes, or services by reducing waste or increasing quality. This continuous effort drives a competitive advantage for organizations that get it right but, as with many things in life, consistency is not easy to achieve. 

For many, the very mention of continuous improvement brings about an instinctual eye-roll due to some negative past experience with this approach. Many times employees and leaders feel burned by a CI "program" that was forced upon them and only really resulted in a bunch of busy work focused on cleaning up their area or taping up whiteboards.

When a manger/leader has a business outcome to achieve, the last thing they want to feel is that some other department is forcing their process on them and all it is doing is distracting them and their people from hitting their objectives. So, it's critical when learning about and considering introducing continuous improvement to your organization, that you are clear about what it's real intention is ... to improve the business outcomes. 

Additionally, continuous improvement is not a "program"! If we introduce CI as a program we immediately set the expectation that it has a start and end date. This is in direct conflict with the cultural change that we are attempting to drive ... making improvement the way we do business. CI should never stop and when it's in effect we will see improvement in a couple of ways.


Bits and Bursts of Improvement

In general, improvement comes in one of two forms for businesses:


  • Incremental: Occurring slowly, in bits and pieces, over time
  • Breakthrough: Occurring all at once, in a burst of change

While sudden breakthroughs will occur, the truth is that CI usually happens incrementally over a long period of time. Change isn’t easy. Whether your current processes are good or bad, effective or ineffective, they’re deep-seated habits for your organization. Setting this expectation up front allows the organization to recognize and reward the right behavior and creates the foundation for true cultural change.


Fueling the Improvement Engine

You can’t talk about continuous improvement without addressing strategy. Without proper alignment of the leadership team and buy-in from the organization, a true commitment to this process will be difficult, at best. This is why focusing on the business outcomes through effective strategy alignment is so critical. 

If continuous improvement is introduced as a bunch of tools called Lean, Six Sigma, DMAIC, or others, leaders aren't going to understand the context and see how it will benefit them and their teams. If however you start the conversation around their objectives, and the describe how you and the CI team will help themachieve their objectives, the adoption will be much easier and much more sustainable.

Remember, people instinctually want to know "what's in it for me" so be sure to make that question easy to answer. You need to answer this question, in clear language, all the way down through the ranks.


CI SUCCESS STORY: Danaher Corporation

Danaher Corporation, a global manufacturing company, is famous for its ability to do just that. The company uses the Japanese concept of Hoshin Kanri, a seven-step strategic planning method, to monitor process improvement and provide its employees with strategic objectives.

For Danaher, the answer to the question of “why” is found in their official statement of purpose:

It started as an idea for a better way, but like all powerful ideas, it evolved into a passion. It’s why at Danaher we view every challenge as an opportunity. And it’s the reason we’re on a constant quest to make things better — for our customers, our company and the world. Our shared purpose is helping realize life’s potential.


CI SUCCESS STORY:  Hilton Hotels

Hilton Hotels are well-known for using the Balanced Scorecard method, where top-level themes are developed and then shared at all levels of the organization. Performance metrics are key to company-wide change.

Hilton’s desire for continuous innovation and improvement is built into its vision statement:

As the most recognized name in the industry, travelers all over the world have been saying “Take me to the Hilton” for almost a century. And because of our innovative approach to products, amenities and service, Hilton continues to be synonymous with hotel across the globe. Hilton Hotels & Resorts remains the stylish, forward thinking global leader of hospitality.


Becoming a Success Story

So, what is your company’s answer to the question, “Why is continuous improvement important?”

If you’re stuck, you’re not alone. Many companies struggle to answer that question and assemble a cohesive improvement plan. That’s why they turn to CI experts for assistance.

Many are using EON, the world’s most powerful solution for continuous improvement. EON can help you analyze your current CI situation, develop a deeper understanding of strategic objectives, identify opportunities across your enterprise, and drive better outcomes for long-term success. 


About the author

Brian Wilkins

Brian brings 15 years of sales and account management experience serving C-suite executives at Fortune 1000 organizations.