Transforming Organisational Excellence with CI — Chapter 2: The Foundations of Continuous Improvement

Sunny Tan HC
8 min readMay 1, 2024


Continuous Improvement methodologies have evolved over the decades and could differ based on context, region, and domain. They draw inspiration from diverse sources and undergo iterative refinements to meet the ever-changing needs of businesses and industries, continuously improving the fundamentals of CI.

From the pioneering work of quality gurus like W. Edwards Deming to the innovative approaches developed by companies like Toyota, CI has become synonymous with the pursuit of operational excellence and continuous growth. In the current climate, CI helps organisations create a culture that supports sustainable practices, encouraging the team to streamline and improve processes that reduce waste, improve resource efficiency, and enhance overall sustainability, which reduces cost and improves productivity.

Welcome to Chapter 2, where we examine the practical application of Continuous Improvement methodologies. We unravel the intricacies of CI methodologies and highlight the best practices that drive success.

Introduction to Continuous Improvement Methodologies

CI methodologies are the cornerstone of organisational excellence. They provide structured frameworks and techniques to drive incremental enhancements, foster a culture of continuous learning and improvement, and reduce inefficiencies to drive sustainability efforts.

As organisations strive to optimise processes, reduce waste, and enhance quality, they turn to CI methodologies to guide their improvement efforts. Each methodology offers unique insights, tools, and approaches to address specific challenges and achieve desired outcomes.

Be open to the tools presented here and focus on their fundamental principles instead of getting fixated on the industry or domain to which it’s commonly applied and where the examples are given.

Lean Thinking

Toyota pioneered lean methodologies through the Toyota Production System (TPS), emphasising waste reduction and continuous improvement and focusing on activities that bring customer value. TPS’s success transformed manufacturing, inspiring global adoption of Lean principles in various industries and fostering efficiency, quality, and innovation worldwide.

Six Sigma

Motorola created Six Sigma to reduce defects and variations in processes. Jack Welch famously implemented Six Sigma at GE. The approach improves quality, efficiency, and customer satisfaction by defining, measuring, analysing, improving, and controlling (DMAIC) processes. GE’s success with Six Sigma made it a global leader in operational excellence and inspired widespread adoption of the methodology across industries.

Total Quality Management

Quality pioneers such as W. Edwards Deming and Joseph Juran developed Total Quality Management (TQM). Toyota is a prime example of a company that has embraced and incorporated TQM principles into its TPS. Through TQM, Toyota has achieved exceptional quality, efficiency, and customer satisfaction, earning a reputation as a global leader in automotive manufacturing and operational excellence.

Agile and More

In addition to traditional CI methodologies, organisations increasingly integrate various principles from software development into their improvement initiatives.

For example, Spotify is a renowned company that has embraced Agile principles in its CI work. It adopts Agile practices such as cross-functional teams, iterative development, and continuous feedback loops to enable rapid innovation and adaptation to customer needs.

CI methodologies reveal principles, practices, and philosophies for organisational transformation and sustained success in today’s VUCA global environment. Consistency in embracing changes is vital for navigating businesses on the move.

Key Components of CI Methodologies

CI methodologies encompass a variety of core components and principles. Understanding and adapting these key components to suit your business needs is essential for implementing CI effectively and driving meaningful organisational change.

PDCA Cycle

The Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) or Deming Cycle is a fundamental component of CI methodologies. It provides a structured framework for problem-solving and improvement by guiding organisations through planning, implementing, evaluating, and adjusting processes based on feedback and results.

A simple example of using the PDCA cycle is in the context of improving customer service response times.

  1. Plan — A customer service team aims to reduce average response times for customer inquiries by implementing a new ticketing system and providing additional training to staff.
  2. Do — The team implements the new ticketing system and conducts training sessions for customer service representatives on effective communication and problem-solving techniques.
  3. Check — A month after implementation, the team analyses data on response times and customer feedback to assess the effectiveness of the changes. While response times have decreased, there are still areas for improvement in waiting times during peak hours.
  4. Act — Based on their findings, the team decided to optimise the ticketing system further and adjust staffing to accommodate peak periods, aiming to achieve even faster response times and higher customer satisfaction.

Gemba Walks

Gemba, meaning “the real place” in Japanese, refers to the actual work location or where the problem occurred. Gemba walks involve leaders and managers going to the workplace to observe operations firsthand, focus on the process, and identify opportunities for improvement.

For example, a manufacturing company conducts Gemba walks to assess safety practices on the factory floor.

During the Gemba walk, managers observe employees’ adherence to safety procedures, identify potential hazards, and chat with frontline team members to understand their safety concerns. They notice that some do not wear proper personal protective equipment (PPE) or not wearing it properly while operating machinery. Additionally, they observe spills on the floor that pose slip hazards.

Based on these observations, the management team implements immediate corrective actions by providing additional training on safety protocols, distributing PPE to all employees, and implementing stricter enforcement of safety guidelines. They also initiate longer-term improvements, such as redesigning workflow processes to minimise spill risks, having warning signs within reach, and installing them in high-risk areas.

One can’t know the root cause of an issue and its dependencies without being physically present at the place where it occurs.

Root Cause Analysis

Root Cause Analysis (RCA) is a systematic approach to identifying underlying process problems. It helps discover root causes, implement targeted solutions to prevent recurrence, and drive sustainable improvement. One of the standard tools used is the “5-Why,” which involves asking yourself or the team,” Why like that?”

  1. Why did the vehicle fail the quality inspection?
    Answer: The vehicle failed due to a paint defect.
  2. Why was there a paint defect?
    Answer: The paint bubbled during application.
  3. Why did the paint bubble?
    Answer: The temperature in the paint booth was too high.
  4. Why was the temperature too high in the paint booth?
    Answer: The temperature control system malfunctioned.
  5. Why did the temperature control system malfunction?
    Answer: The sensor responsible for regulating the temperature was faulty.

The company’s quality team uncovered that the root cause of the paint defect was a faulty sensor in the temperature control system and implemented preventive measures to prevent future occurrences.

Value Stream Mapping

Value Stream Mapping (VSM) is a visual tool for analysing and improving the flow of materials and information within a process or value stream. It helps organisations identify waste, inefficiencies, and bottlenecks, allowing them to streamline processes and enhance overall value delivery to customers.

One example of VSM is optimising order fulfilment processes in an e-commerce company like Amazon.

The company employs VSM to analyse and improve its order fulfilment process. It maps out each step in the value stream, from receiving customer orders to delivering packages to customers’ doorsteps. By visually representing the flow of materials, information, and processes, it identifies inefficiencies, bottlenecks, and opportunities for improvement.

For instance, one of the discoveries is that prolonged order processing times are due to manual data entry errors. As a result, the company implements automation solutions and standardised processes to reduce mistakes and streamline order processing, leading to faster delivery times and improved customer satisfaction.

Standard Work

Standard work involves documenting and standardising the best-known methods for performing tasks or processes based on current knowledge and practices. Organisations can ensure consistency, quality, and efficiency while providing a baseline for continuous improvement efforts by implementing standard work.

One typical example of standard work is in the context of food preparation at a fast-food restaurant chain like McDonald’s, which most of us should have experience with.

McDonald’s implements standard work procedures to ensure consistency and efficiency in food preparation. For instance, the company has standardised procedures for assembling a hamburger, specifying the sequence of steps, portion sizes, and ingredients used. Each employee follows these standardised instructions precisely, from toasting the bun to adding condiments and toppings, ensuring that every hamburger meets McDonald’s quality standards and customer expectations.

Since 2014, McDonald’s has installed over 130,000 ordering kiosks globally, as of January 2024, to standardise customers’ ordering experience. Have you tried them?

Success Factors and Best Practices

Organisations will navigate various challenges and complexities to achieve meaningful and sustainable results and delight customers. It’s, therefore, important to explore the critical success factors and best practices that underpin successful CI initiatives.

Leadership Commitment

Strong leadership commitment is paramount to the success of CI efforts. Leaders must actively champion CI, allocate resources, lead by example, and provide unwavering support to foster an organisation with CI as a Culture.

I have seen the differences in the people’s commitment when their leaders took action in walking the talk compared to those leading from their offices.

Employee Engagement

Engaging employees at all levels is crucial for CI success. Decentralise CI by empowering frontline members closest to the problem or opportunities to identify and implement improvement opportunities, fostering a sense of ownership and accountability and driving bottom-up CI adoption.

Trust the people doing their jobs to be the Subject Matter Experts in that domain and to know what can be done to improve their work. Delegating ownership to them builds trust, accountability, and a culture.

Data-Driven Decision-Making

Utilising data and metrics to inform decision-making is fundamental in CI. Organisations must establish robust measurement systems to track key performance indicators (KPIs), monitor progress, and identify areas for improvement, enabling informed decision-making and targeted interventions.

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” — Lord Kelvin.

Before measurement can be done, it’s essential to standardise the type of data field and its measurement to save 80% of the project time cleansing them.

Cross-Functional Collaboration

Collaboration across departments and functions is essential for addressing complex challenges and driving holistic organisational improvements. Breaking down silos, fostering open communication, and promoting cross-functional teamwork enable organisations to leverage diverse perspectives and expertise to achieve shared CI objectives.

When someone becomes competent in performing their assigned task, they may become fixated on the processes they are familiar with, hindering their ability to consider alternative approaches. Collaborating with members from other functions who bring new perspectives can broaden the consideration of possible solutions. This approach can lead to achieving holistic improvement upstream and downstream.

Continuous Learning and Adaptation

Embracing a culture of continuous learning and adaptation is vital in CI. Organisations must encourage experimentation, embrace failure as a learning opportunity, and adapt strategies based on feedback and lessons learned, fostering agility, resilience, and continuous improvement.

As the team’s competency improves, the likelihood of making mistakes decreases, which can lead to a sense of complacency and comfort. However, mistakes are a natural part of exploring uncharted territory and trying new things. It’s important to accept mistakes as part of the learning process and use them as an opportunity for growth. With each mistake, the team can gain new insights and move closer to achieving their goals.


This chapter aims to bring you closer to the key ingredients and methods in “brewing” the CI culture in your organisation. CI is not a short sprint, it’s a marathon where you need various support components to make this a successful journey.

The next chapter will bring you closer to CI tools like RCA and VSM, which enable organisations to drive meaningful change effectively.

Past Relevant Article

  1. Transforming Organisational Excellence with CI
  2. Transforming Organisational Excellence with CI — Chapter 1: Introduction to Continuous Improvement



Sunny Tan HC

Continuous Improvement | CX | DX | Ex- Technoprenuer | Project Manager | Vacathoner | Medium Writer | Member of CVMB-IPMA