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Is the Concept of Continuous Improvement Flawed?

Continuous improvement as we know it, has its roots in the TPS (Toyota Production System) developed by Toyota shortly after World World 2. TPS was a precursor to the current lean manufacturing process that most of us are familiar with. One of the core principles of Lean Production is the concept of Kaizen (Kai = Good, Zen = Change).

Lean Production is not new, it has been around in some form or another since Henry Ford. A few companies that you may have heard of that embrace this concept are: Caterpillar, Kimberly Clark, Nike, Intel, John Deere, Ford, and of course Toyota

The concept of continuous improvement dictates that there is no perfect process, that everything can be improved. The Six Sigma method for continuous improvement is Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control. Basically, you are defining what the problem is, measure data, analyze the data, improve the process, and control it. Then repeat.

1 in 4 continuous improvement plans will save time.

1 in 10 continuous improvement plans will save money.

Sound good doesn’t it? Also, seems easy enough.

What if I told you that continuous improvement was a bad thing, and that everything I told you up until this point can also be used as a counter argument against continuous improvement.

3 out of 4 continuous improvement plans don't save time.

9 out of 10 continuous improvement plans don’t save money.

What if I told you about a company that made improvements to their product every single year. Not once in a while, EVERY year. This same company made improvements to their process every year. This company was a household name, and the biggest company in their field.

How many of you own a map? If you can still find one, is it a Rand McNally Map. Once the biggest map maker in the world, today many people don’t recognize the name .

Car companies do the same thing. Every year they make improvements, or better products, and fix products from the year before. Yet many fail. If I ask you to name an innovating car company, most will probably say Tesla. Not Ford, or GM, or even Toyota, who is mentioned a few times above, and are known for their continuous improvement process. Tesla, because they came out with something completely new and innovative, an electric car that was better looking, better performing and more cost effective than what anyone has done before.

I once heard that if you are doing things the way you have always done them, you are not staying status quo, you are actually falling behind.

If you are continuously improving, then you may be able to keep up with the Jones.

But to truly jump ahead, you need to innovate.

You can’t continue to make a better map if people are not going to buy them.

Don’t look at your order picking process and think; “If we do three small tweaks, we can save 5% a year.” Look at it with the mind set, “What do I have to do improve my delivery to my customers and save 300%?” Chances are you are going to destroy the current process, you will develop a new way of thinking, and open yourself up to something brand new and innovative.

It is the equivalent of going from a paper based environment to installing a RF Warehouse Management System with voice picking. Continuous improvement will not get you there.

“Progress Demands Change!”


Brian Munday

ASW Consultant

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