Continuous Improvement Tools

Workers in a factory place parts on partially assembled automobiles.

How is a business doing? Can the organization be more effective? What can the company do to make operations faster and more efficient?

These are the types of questions that organizations ask under a continuous improvement mindset. When organizations strive to always look for better ways to do things, they can evolve their products, services, workflows and more to become more optimal and efficient over time.

Continuous Improvement Tools

Here is a quick look at some of the most common continuous improvement tools.

  • Six Sigma: This model for continuous improvement uses methodologies, tools and workflows to minimize faults and effects for any established process. Six Sigma uses different methodologies for improving an existing business process (DMAIC, which stands for Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve and Control) or a new one (DFSS, which stands for Design for Six Sigma). Within these methodologies, tools and workflows are used including the “five whys,” axiomatic design and cost-benefit analysis.
  • Lean and Kaizen: These inter-related terms define two popular continuous improvement tools and methods. Kaizen is a philosophy of continuous improvement that uses small, incremental changes applied over a long period to result in significant improvements, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It is a building block for Lean production models focused on removing “waste,” which fail to create value for the end customer. Analytical techniques like the five whys and value stream mapping are used.
  • Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI) Model: This simple strategy focuses on setting aims and teambuilding to achieve change. It promotes improvement by asking three questions.
    • What are we trying to accomplish?
    • How will we know that a change is an improvement?
    • What changes can we make that will result in improvement?

Where Is Continuous Improvement Used?

Continuous improvement ideas and tools have been used across industries like manufacturing, education and healthcare.


Ford Motor Company used Six Sigma to reduce costs, improve quality, increase customer satisfaction rates and lower environmental impact by reducing solvent consumption. Beginning in the 1990s, Ford implemented the Six Sigma model, but it had to overcome obstacles like employee commitment, a lack of key resources like time and money and underwhelming data for its processes. According to Six Sigma, it helped Ford eliminate more than $2.19 billion in waste in more than 15 years. Six Sigma has helped the company complete nearly 10,000 improvement projects since the early 2000s, and customer satisfaction has increased by five percentage points.


Kaizen is the heart of the Toyota Production System,” according to the automaker’s website. Toyota’s people and customer-oriented philosophy strive for the absolute elimination of waste, overburden and unevenness to allow employees to work smoothly and efficiently. Thus, kaizen is naturally “applied to every sphere of the company’s activities,” given kaizen’s focus on removing waste and its role in making small, incremental changes.


The IHI model of continuous improvement is used by a wide range of individuals, teams and organizations to implement change. This is true for Pierre Barker, chief global partnerships and programs officer at IHI, when he began a 12-year role as medical director at UNC Children’s Hospital clinics.

Until this point, I had had no exposure to improvement science, but I soon joined a Collaborative led by NICHQ [National Institute for Children’s Health Quality] on cystic fibrosis that became my introduction to IHI and improvement methodology. During the Collaborative, I met [IHI Senior Fellow and Improvement Advisor] Lloyd Provost, who told me IHI was looking for someone to test the IHI methods in a low- and middle-income country; ideally, they wanted a physician to try this out in Africa.

That was all I needed. Within about 24 hours, I had secured the job. I applied for a sabbatical leave from the University of North Carolina and returned to South Africa for a year with my family. It was an amazing experience. I started applying improvement science to the HIV epidemic in South Africa, and very quickly I could see how powerful this methodology could be in an area with such staggering challenges. I got totally hooked. And things have taken off from there. In addition to its foundational programs in North America, IHI now has vibrant programs in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East/Asia Pacific, and Europe.

Lean and Kaizen

Kaizen is an important philosophy within the Lean process. Lean is used by successful startups as well as major manufacturers in the world, like Nike, Intel, Caterpillar and Textron, in addition to Ford and Toyota. Many hospitals have applied Lean to reduce or eliminate waste, become more efficient and improve healthcare delivery.

There are three basic steps or phrases for implementing a kaizen “event,” as outlined by the EPA.

Phase 1: Planning and Preparation

The first challenge is identifying an appropriate target for a rapid improvement event. Areas might include an administrative process or production area with significant bottlenecks or delays, areas with quality or performance concerns and/or areas with significant market or financial impact.

Then a more specific “waste elimination” problem within the chosen area can be the focus for the kaizen event. Once the problem area is chosen, assembling a cross-functional team of employees is the next step. Teams should include some members from the targeted administration or production process area.

Kaizen events last from one to seven days and team members should shed most of their operational responsibilities during this time to focus on the kaizen event.

Phase 2: Implementation

The team should develop a clear understanding of the “current state” of the targeted process. There are two techniques commonly used to define the current state and identify manufacturing wastes.

  • Five Whys: Toyota developed the practice of asking “why” five separate times, answering the question each time to reveal the root cause of a problem.
    • Q:Why did the machine stop?
      A: There was an overload and the fuse blew.
    • Q: Why was there an overload?
      A: The bearing was not sufficiently lubricated.
    • Q: Why was it not lubricated sufficiently?
      A: The lubrication pump was not pumping sufficiently.
    • Q:Why was it not pumping sufficiently?
      A: The shaft of the pump was worn and rattling.
    • Q: Why was the shaft worn out?
      A: There was no strainer attached and metal scrap got in.
  • Value Stream Mapping: This technique helps an organization identify non-value-adding elements in a targeted process. Similar to process mapping, value stream mapping involves flowcharting the steps, activities, material flows, communications and other process elements involved with a process or transformation.

Typically, it’s necessary to collect information on the targeted process. Team members are assigned specific roles for research and analysis, and once more information is gathered, they can add detail to value stream maps of the process and conduct time studies of relevant operations.

Data is then analyzed and assessed to find areas for improvement. Team members can brainstorm improvement options and test them on the shop floor or in process “mockups.” The most promising ideas are selected and implemented.

Phase 3: Follow-up

A key in this phase is making sure improvements are sustained, not just temporary. Team members routinely track key performance measures to document improvement gains. Follow-up events are sometimes scheduled at 30 and 90 days following the initial kaizen event to assess performance and consider modifications needed to sustain the improvements.

Male worker in a hardhat uses a precision tool to measure a metal cylinder.

Advancing Your Business Career

A strong understanding of business principles and how to apply them to real-world situations is essential for continuous improvement tools and philosophies. An online bachelor’s in business administration, online applied business degree or online MBA from Concordia University Texas can give you the skills to succeed in helping organizations thrive. You can learn in a flexible, convenient online environment with a schedule that fits your life.