Continuous improvement is a mainstay of quality management and the Six Sigma process, and intuitively, it seems like there can be no possible downside to always getting better at what you do. However, some of the ideologies and methodologies behind a continuous improvement mindset can actually get in the way of creative innovation.
Benefits of Continuous Improvement
Continuous improvement means your business is always getting better.
- Efficiency. A continuously improving business is continually improving efficiency. As you implement the systems to get more done in less time, you save money on labor and increase customer satisfaction by turning out a higher-quality product.
- Engagement. Employees who work in an environment where they are expected to make continual improvements are more interested in their work than employees who are expected to simply show up and get the job done. Interested employees are satisfied employees who stay with your company longer and go the extra mile to satisfy customers and fix problems.
- Customer satisfaction. As your products and services continually improve, you'll be better able to meet customer needs. Your offerings will have fewer flaws because your staff will be devoting time and energy toward resolving difficulties. These efforts will be in part a response to customer feedback, and their implementation will improve the customer experience.
- Effective systems. When continuous improvement is part of a quality management effort, your business will put systems in place to continually evaluate and upgrade its operations. These systems will give your company the tools it needs to build quality into its DNA as an intrinsic aspect of its identity.
Disadvantages of Continuous Improvement
There isn't any real downside to improvement itself unless your business model is based on coasting by with a substandard or merely adequate product. However, some of the systematic protocols and approaches to achieving continuous improvement may not always work in the best interest of your business.
- Incremental improvement. Continuous improvement is usually implemented as an incremental process in which advances are made in small steps according to an established set of assumptions. To have a formal continuous improvement program in place, your team will have defined a set of desirable objectives and will be working toward these outcomes. However, sometimes real improvement comes from shattering a mold and exploring an entirely different direction.
- Stifled innovation. If your business has defined the ways it wants to grow and improve, it may limit itself to a specific type of development and close itself off to other possibilities. It addition to missing opportunities, this creates the possibility of stifling rather than rewarding the creativity of your staff.
- Inadequate implementation. Although continual improvement itself tends to be good for an organization, it may not be implemented effectively. Objectives may not be communicated clearly, or managers may not be sufficiently motivated in following through with improvements. If your staff isn't sufficiently motivated or if they feel like their efforts are wasted, your continuous improvement program may create more problems than benefits.
Leveraging Advantages, Tempering Disadvantages
The importance of continuous improvement lies less in the implementation of a narrow and restrictive program and more in the pursuit of a broad-based commitment to doing good work and always aiming to do better. The disadvantages of continuous improvement are less a matter of flaws with the idea itself but rather are problems in using this idea in ways that will make your company genuinely improve.
To make the most of the advantages and avoid falling prey to the disadvantages, try to keep an eye on the big picture idea rather than minutiae. Instead of following a preset continuous improvement program at all costs, give your staff permission to question the routine if they feel there are more effective and creative ways to improve.
Devra Gartenstein founded her first food business in 1987. In 2013 she transformed her most recent venture, a farmers market concession and catering company, into a worker-owned cooperative. She does one-on-one mentoring and consulting focused on entrepreneurship and practical business skills.