Mention the word “innovation” and many people will instinctively think of radical changes — new product categories like smartphones, new business models like Uber, dramatic process innovations like online retailing, and so on. Yet the reality is that innovation comes in many different forms and these radical breakthroughs appear only occasionally. Most innovation is less dramatic but has its impact through the accumulation of sustained incremental change — doing what we do but better.

It’s not a case of either/or; we need both kinds of innovation. And it’s helpful to position this innovation on a spectrum of novelty: They are both about creating value from ideas but the big advantage of incremental innovation is that it builds on what we already know; it doesn’t involve high-risk leaps in the dark.

So when we talk about “innovation management,” it’s worth focusing some of our attention on this challenge of continuous improvement and how we might best enable this. And that’s the focus of this extensive guide on continuous improvement.

What is Continuous Improvement? 

Continuous improvement isn’t a new concept. It’s only natural to try to find ways of doing something better, whether it’s a way of saving time, increasing yield, or making fewer defects.

Continuous improvement, also known as incremental innovation or continuous process improvement or simply CI, is a mindset that focuses on constantly refining and optimizing processes to achieve better outcomes. It’s a core philosophy of various quality-management methodologies, such as Lean, Six Sigma, and Kaizen.

CI isn’t a one-time event or a quick fix. It’s a continuous journey that requires a proactive approach, open-mindedness, and a willingness to change. Organizations that embrace CI foster a culture of continuous learning, innovation, and improvement.

The Importance of Continuous Improvement in Industry

Continuous improvement is vital in numerous industries, including manufacturing, healthcare, finance, IT, and the service sectors, for many reasons:

Enhanced Efficiency 

CI helps to identify and eliminate wasteful activities, redundancies, and bottlenecks in processes, leading to improved efficiency and productivity.

A great example is Subsea7’s, a global leader in the delivery of offshore projects and services for the energy industry, highly successful campaign around improving the efficiency of its mobilization loading and unloading vessels for its various projects.

The “call to action” (CTA) was clear “How can we deliver a step change in our mobilization efficiency?” and appeared on the company’s intranet with a personal message from the campaign sponsor. He outlined the challenge: The company performs hundreds of mobilizations each year, and there was significant scope for improvement. Importantly, the sponsor said up front that “I’m prepared to consider small changes…”, giving examples where these savings could add up over time.

The challenge was direct “Think about the issues that drive you crazy…,” and any ideas would be welcome, including those that involved external players like suppliers. There was also a promise that the sponsor and his team would review all ideas, and would implement the best ones. The whole project was bounded by a tight timescale a ten-day “sprint”, followed by two weeks of review and then implementation. 

Quality Improvement

CI focuses on reducing defects, errors, and variations in processes, products, and services, resulting in higher quality standards and customer satisfaction.

One of the most famous studies to illustrate this benefit was carried out by the aptly named James Bright, who looked at the history of the light bulb. We often think of this as a symbol of radical innovation, but its real impact on society didn’t come with the early days in Edison’s lab — it came from the downstream continuous improvement of performance and quality coupled with the continuing fall in costs of production. His study showed that costs of production fell by over 80% and quality of the lightbulb improved dramatically between 1880 and 1896 following Thomas Edison’s and Joseph Swann’s patents as a result of multiple small but cumulative innovations.

Cost Reduction

CI helps to streamline processes, optimize resource utilization, and minimize waste, leading to cost savings and improved profitability. 

A good example comes from ConocoPhilips Canada, who ran a campaign on “winterization.” It was a very specific campaign, looking for ideas around process optimization to reduce costs anywhere from the wellhead to the tank farm. The company gathered six useful ideas; they implemented three, archived a fourth and the other two were passed to their Engineering team to explore further. As Liz Jolley, Innovation Director at ConocoPhilips commented, "…On the surface you might say ‘only three ideas,’ but three were exactly what was needed!"

Innovation and Growth

CI encourages experimentation, creativity, and idea generation, fostering a culture of innovation and driving business growth.

For example, in 1871, Denny’s shipyard on the banks of the Clyde began operating a suggestion scheme amongst its 350 employees; the results enabled them to reduce the time to build a warship from six months to four, while contributing a number of other quality and productivity improvements.

And in 1892, John Patterson at the National Cash Register company in the US began exploring ways of tapping into “the hundred-headed brain” of his workforce; his success led the Eastman Kodak company implementing a similar scheme in 1896. 

Tools and Techniques for Driving Continuous Improvement 

Organizations can use various tools and techniques to implement continuous improvement effectively: 

Process Mapping 

Process mapping is a visual representation of a process, outlining the steps, inputs, outputs, and interactions involved. It helps to identify bottlenecks, redundancies, and inefficiencies in processes, providing a clear picture of the current state of affairs and the areas that need improvement. 

Root Cause Analysis

Root cause analysis is a problem-solving technique used to identify the underlying causes of issues or problems. It involves systematically investigating and analyzing the factors that contribute to a problem to determine its root causes, rather than just addressing the symptoms.

Statistical Process Control (SPC)

SPC is a method used to monitor, control, and improve processes by analyzing data and detecting variations or trends. It involves using statistical techniques to measure process performance, set control limits, and take corrective actions based on data analysis.

Kaizen Events

Kaizen events, also known as rapid improvement events or Kaizen blitzes, are focused improvement activities that bring together cross-functional teams to identify and implement improvements in a short timeframe. These events involve a structured and systematic approach to problem solving, data analysis, and solution implementation.

Lean Tools

Lean tools are a set of techniques derived from the “lean philosophy”, which focuses on eliminating waste and improving flow in processes. These tools help organizations identify and eliminate waste, reduce lead times, and improve process efficiency.

Continuous Improvement Teams

Organizations can form dedicated teams or task forces to drive continuous improvement initiatives. These teams can be cross-functional and include members from different departments or levels of the organization. Continuous improvement teams play a crucial role in fostering a culture of improvement and driving sustainable results. Their role is to identify improvement opportunities, analyze data, develop and implement improvement plans, and monitor progress.

Steps for Implementing Continuous Improvement

Implementing continuous improvement in an organization requires a structured approach that includes the following steps:

  1. Establish a culture of continuous improvement: Leadership commitment is crucial in fostering a culture of continuous improvement. Leaders should communicate the importance of CI, set expectations, and provide resources and support to employees. Employees at all levels should be encouraged to participate in CI initiatives and share their ideas and suggestions.

  2. Identify improvement opportunities: Conduct thorough process audits, gather data, and analyze performance metrics to identify areas that need improvement. Involve employees who are closest to the processes, as they often have valuable insights and suggestions for improvement.

  3. Prioritize improvement projects: Based on the identified opportunities, prioritize improvement projects based on their potential impact, feasibility, and alignment with organizational goals. Develop a roadmap or a plan to guide the implementation process.

  4. Form improvement teams: Form cross-functional teams or task forces to work on improvement projects. Provide them with the necessary resources, tools, and training to carry out their tasks effectively.

  5. Analyze and implement improvements: Use data-driven techniques such as process mapping, root cause analysis, and statistical process control to identify and implement improvements. Involve employees in the problem-solving process and encourage experimentation and innovation.

  6. Monitor and measure results: Track and monitor the progress of improvement using appropriate metrics. Analyze the results and make adjustments as necessary. Celebrate and recognize the successes achieved through CI initiatives to reinforce the culture of continuous improvement.

  7. Standardize and sustain improvements: Once improvements are implemented, establish standard operating procedures (SOPs) and ensure that they are followed consistently. Provide ongoing training and support to employees to sustain the improvements and prevent regression.

  8. Continuously improve: Continuous improvement is an ongoing process, and organizations should continuously strive for further improvements. Regularly review and reassess processes, gather feedback, and involve employees in identifying new improvement opportunities.

  9. Communicate and celebrate successes: Communication is key to the success of CI initiatives. Keep employees informed about the progress and results of improvement projects. Celebrate successes and recognize the efforts of employees to motivate them to continue contributing to the culture of continuous improvement.

By following these steps, organizations can implement continuous improvement effectively and achieve sustainable results. It requires commitment from leadership, active participation from employees, use of data-driven techniques, and a culture that encourages experimentation, innovation, and continuous learning. Continuous improvement is not a one-time event, but a mindset and a way of doing business that can lead to increased efficiency, quality, and customer satisfaction.

Challenges and Solutions for Continuous Improvement

As with any other new initiative, continuous improvement can face various challenges during implementation, even if the benefits are more than obvious. Here are some common challenges and potential solutions: 

Resistance to change

Employees may resist changes to their established work routines and processes, leading to a lack of engagement in CI initiatives.

Solution: Communicate the need for change, provide training and support, and involve employees in the process. Address their concerns and highlight the benefits of CI, such as increased efficiency and increased job satisfaction.

Lack of leadership commitment

Without strong leadership commitment, CI initiatives may lack the necessary resources, support, and direction, leading to limited progress.

Solution: Engage leadership from the beginning, communicate the strategic importance of CI, allocate appropriate resources, and set clear expectations for leaders to actively participate and support CI initiatives. You should always lead by example.

Inadequate data and measurement

Data is essential for identifying improvement opportunities and measuring the effectiveness of CI initiatives. Lack of accurate data and measurement systems can hinder progress.

Solution: Implement data collection and measurement systems, train employees in data analysis techniques, and use data-driven decision-making to identify and prioritize improvement opportunities.

Siloed or departmental mindset

When departments work in isolation, it can hinder the flow of information and collaboration needed for CI.

Solution: Foster a culture of cross-functional collaboration, encourage knowledge sharing and communication across departments, and involve from different areas in CI initiatives to break down silos. 

Lack of employee engagement 

Employees may not feel motivated to contribute to CI initiatives if they don’t understand the purpose, are not involved in decision-making, or do not see the value of their contributions.

Solution: Involve employees at all levels in CI initiatives, provide opportunities for input and feedback, recognize and reward their contributions, and communicate the impact of their efforts on organizational success. 

Resource constraints

Limited resources such as time, budget, and personnel can pose challenges to implementing CI initiatives.

Solution: Prioritize improvement projects based on available resources and potential impact, seek creative solutions to optimize resource utilization, and secure necessary resources through effective communication and justification of the benefits of CI.

Lack of sustained focus

CI requires ongoing effort and commitment, and it can be challenging to maintain momentum and focus over time.

Solution: Establish a roadmap or plan for CI initiatives, set short-term and long-term goals, regularly review progress, and continuously reinforce the importance of CI through communication and recognition.

Overemphasis on quick fixes

CI is a long-term approach that focuses on identifying and addressing root causes, rather than just applying quick fixes to symptoms.

Solution: Train employees in problem-solving techniques such as root cause analysis and encourage a thorough and systematic approach to problem-solving, even if it takes more time initially.

By proactively addressing these challenges and implementing solutions, organizations can overcome barriers to CI success and create a culture of continuous improvement that drives positive change and results in improved performance, efficiency, and customer satisfaction.


How Software Can Enhance Continuous Improvement

In today's digital era, innovation management software can play a significant role in enhancing CI efforts in organizations. Software isn’t a replacement for lean teams, Six Sigma, or any of the other “power tools” of continuous improvement. Instead, it’s a complementary resource, a way of extending the reach and of streamlining many of the core elements around idea management.

Facilitating CI through software works in the public and not-for-profit world as well as in the commercial one, and the targets for such innovation range from straightforward cost savings and productivity improvements to creating new crisis responses in the world of humanitarian aid or finding ways to improve access to shelter, health care, and basic needs in the world of international development.

How software can help with continuous improvement

Here are some of the ways in which software can facilitate and enhance the process of continuous improvement: 

  • Data Collection and Analysis 
    Software can automate the collection and analysis of data related to process performance, defects, customer feedback, and other relevant metrics. This enables organizations to gather accurate and real-time data, identify trends, patterns, and root causes of problems, and make data-driven decisions for improvement.
  • Process Mapping and Visualization 
    Software can enable organizations to create visual representations of their processes through process mapping tools. These visualizations help to identify bottlenecks, redundancies, and inefficiencies in processes, which can then be targeted for improvement.
  • Collaboration and Communication 
    Software can facilitate collaboration and communication among teams, departments, and stakeholders involved in CI efforts. Tools such as project management software, virtual collaboration platforms, and communication tools enable teams to share ideas, updates, and progress, collaborate on improvement projects, and communicate effectively across different locations and time zones.
  • Automation and Workflow Management
    Software can automate repetitive tasks, streamline workflows, and standardize processes, reducing human error and variability. Workflow management tools can help organizations to create and manage standardized processes, assign tasks, track progress, and automate notifications and reminders, making CI efforts more efficient and consistent.
  • Root Cause Analysis
    Software can provide advanced analytics and statistical tools for conducting root cause analysis, helping organizations to identify the underlying causes of problems and take targeted corrective actions. These tools can analyze large datasets, detect patterns, correlations, and anomalies, and generate insights for process improvement.
  • Performance Monitoring and Reporting 
    Software can provide real-time monitoring and reporting of process performance, defects, and improvement initiatives. Dashboards, scorecards, and reports can provide organizations with a holistic view of their CI efforts, allowing them to track progress, measure the effectiveness of improvement initiatives, and make data-driven decisions for further improvement.
  • Training and Skill Development
    Software can offer training modules and resources for employees to develop their skills in CI methodologies, tools, and techniques. Online learning platforms, e-learning modules, and virtual training sessions can empower employees with the knowledge and skills required to drive CI initiatives effectively.
  • Continuous Feedback and Improvement Loop 
    Software can facilitate a continuous feedback loop by capturing feedback from customers, employees, and other stakeholders, and integrating it into the CI process. This enables organizations to gather valuable insights, identify improvement opportunities, and implement changes iteratively for continuous improvement.
  • Scalability and Flexibility 
    Software can provide scalability and flexibility in managing CI efforts in organizations of all sizes and complexities. Whether it's a small team or a large multinational organization, software can be tailored to meet the unique needs and requirements of the organization, making it adaptable to different contexts and scenarios.

All in all, software can significantly enhance organizations’ continuous improvement efforts by automating data collection and analysis, enabling process mapping and visualization, facilitating collaboration and communication, automating workflows, supporting root cause analysis, providing performance monitoring and reporting, offering training and skill development, facilitating continuous feedback, and providing scalability and flexibility. By leveraging software tools, organizations can streamline and optimize their CI efforts, driving continuous improvement across their operations, and achieving higher levels of efficiency, quality, and customer satisfaction. 



We’ve learned a lot; we now have a rich and powerful toolkit and a set of framework methodologies to help reap the benefits of continuous improvement. And there is a growing number of coaches and facilitators to create and adapt the CI engine to help enable it to perform for the long haul rather than being a short-term initiative.

Although we’ve learned a lot about how to organize and manage CI, there’s still plenty to improve upon if we’re going to realize its full impact. For example, creating a culture of continuous improvement requires putting in place the structures to deal with any of the challenges we’ve described in this article. One of the reasons that lean methodologies prove so successful for continuous improvement is that they create a supportive sub-culture that results in shared motivation, clear local targets and high-visibility results. Getting everyone involved in innovation works and if you maintain the momentum, CI can deliver consistent bottom-line benefits.

So keep going and don’t forget to keep improving your continuous improvement program! 

How to boost continuous improvement?