What to Look for In a Continuous Improvement Model


The first thing to realize when looking for a continuous improvement model is that it is not just a collection of tools or a specific named and highly touted program that excludes other valuable methodologies. A continuous improvement model includes a mindset and approach that engages workers in understanding their customers and their processes and driving efforts toward sustainable changes for the better.

The Deming cycle

The granddaddy of continuous improvement models is the Deming or Shewhart cycle: Plan>>Do>>Check>>Act.  


  • Plan: Identify and assess an opportunity, gap, or problem and plan a change to improve it.
  • Do: Make the change, generally on a small scale.
  • Check: Verify, using data, that the change had the desired impact…or not.
  • Act: Based on the data, implement the effective change on a broader scale with continuous assessment. If desired results were not achieved, cycle back to the assessment and plan for other changes.

Notice that no tools are mentioned! Instead, the key concept truly is a cycle of continuous improvement following a structured problem-solving approach.


Key Characteristics Of A Continuous Improvement Model

Let’s further articulate several of the key features of the Deming cycle to describe generic needs for a CI model:


  • Continuous and cyclical rather than far-off and one-off – The model is not intended to deliver the organization’s vision in one huge step, but to deliver a series of tactical improvements toward the vision.
  • Practical rather than theoretical – The desired outcome is not a hypothetical solution, an invention, or a breakthrough change, but instead applied improvements focused on specific real-world problems or gaps.
  • Evidence-based – Whether the evidence comes from demonstrated data changes as in process control monitoring or from visible proof as in 5s visual management, observers can see that the model has or hasn’t delivered a change.
  • Structured – While the end result may not be known exactly, a systematic approach is used to leverage proven methods and to drive efficiencies.
  • Action-oriented - The emphasis is on do and act, not just plan and study.
  • Tweakable – Because a continuous approach is taken, investment in each step is relatively small and results are seen fairly quickly. That means course corrections can be made fairly easily as information is gathered or as conditions change.
  • Inclusive – Notice that Deming’s cycle doesn’t mention specific tools to use or avoid. The ideal continuous improvement model has a flexible shell that may combine several named models and bring in whatever tools are most appropriate for specific needs.

Additional Features of Continuous Improvement Models

Nearly all named CI models will meet the requirements above. When you are trying to choose from among them, think about the types of problems you expect to need to address.

Six Sigma focuses on driving improved capability, specifically through reducing variation and enhancing process control. Most workers can be trained to apply the seven basic quality tools, with very limited need for understanding statistics. Beyond that, some projects will utilize rigorous data analysis to improve processes. Designed experiments, design for manufacturing, hypothesis testing, and computer modeling may be pulled in at the high end, especially in low-volume, new, or high-complexity processes.

Lean focuses on driving non-value-added activities and waste in all its forms out of the flow to the customer. Through participation in multi-day kaizen events, workers are empowered to make sensible changes, often using non-data-driven tools such as process mapping, 5s, mistake-proofing, and five whys.

Theory of constraints uses an understanding of the process to find and manage bottlenecks to improve the system. This is done across the flow of operations and happens iteratively as one bottleneck is reduced and the next becomes evident.

Total quality management (TQM) is a customer-focused model that uses employee engagement, systematic thinking, fact-based decision making and other principles to drive improvement in a business. It is a bit of an early umbrella for many of the other models


Which Continuous Improvement Model Should You Choose?

It depends.

Look at your organization’s strategy, focus, and process. It might seem logical to use Six Sigma if you have a lot of data, TQM if you’re a customer-facing organization, Lean if you have many basic operational opportunities, or Theory of Constraints if you’re trying to optimize a flow. However, your decision will depend on other factors as well.

Past efforts with a specific approach may have established a foundation for improvement that just needs to be dusted off and built upon. On the other hand, if a past approach was poorly managed and abandoned, leaving a terrible impression on the workforce, you may want to start fresh with a different approach.

You may have trained resources or ready access to training that will make the learning curve for implementation much shorter for one method over another.

You may choose from the start to implement a combination of models. The Lean Sigma approach does just that, making it clear that the nature of specific projects will determine which model and tools will be used.

One action that must be avoided is infighting among quality staff and operational teams about which model to use. This dysfunctional behavior can create confusion and kill motivation for workers who are ready to help but caught in the crossfire.

In the long term, an organization with high levels of operational excellence may appear to an outside observer as a versatile mix of multiple models. Serving the customer is a top priority and the flow to the customer is optimized using value stream mapping, elimination of waste, and management of constraints. Where variability needs to be reduced, statistical tools and process metrics are used.   

Contact EON to help sort out your ideas about continuous improvement and define a path forward.


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About the author

Nancy Bach

Nancy Bach has spent more than 20 years in the industry as a quality and operational excellence practitioner and manager. In private consulting, she creates and delivers a Lean Certification course, provides Green Belt training and works with multi-functional organizations to develop strategy and implement process improvement.