“There are four purposes of improvement: easier, better, faster, and cheaper. These four goals appear in the order of priority” (Shigeo Shingo). In the manufacturing sphere, the practice of continuous improvement (CI) (and the closely related concept of Kaizen), is how that adage is put to work.

Today we’ll take a look at the benefits of using CI in manufacturing, the frameworks used, and some practical examples of how CI can be put into action to produce significant results.

Kaizen and the Origin of Continuous Improvement

The idea of continuous improvement owes its origins to the Japanese concept of Kaizen, which roughly translates to “change for the better.”

Kaizen is achieved by taking small, incremental steps to realize improvements in a company’s operations.

Kaizen also places focus on humanizing the workplace, by empowering all employees to identify areas where improvement is needed in their everyday tasks. Every individual that is part of the company shares the responsibility of constantly seeking ways to improve, from frontline workers on through to leadership.

In Kaizen, a willingness to experiment with small changes is the roadmap to making impactful changes on a larger scale.

The Positive Effects of Continuous Improvement

Instilling a culture of continuous improvement can have a wide variety of benefits in your organization. When all members of your organization have an eye towards CI, it gives you numerous chances to stay ahead of your competition. Some of these include:

Optimizing Processes for Efficiency and Cost Reduction

Practicing CI can help organizations identify aspects of their operations that produce unnecessary waste, as well as reduce unnecessary steps, and eliminate redundancies. Streamlining your operations through CI will make more efficient use of resources, reducing costs and maximizing productivity.

Higher Customer Satisfaction

Effective use of CI principles will help you deliver a higher quality of product, with greater consistency. By exceeding customer expectations, you will foster higher customer satisfaction, which leads directly to increased customer loyalty.

Greater Employee Morale

Implementing continuous improvement in your workforce can have a positive impact on employee engagement. When your workforce feels empowered to suggest improvements (and see them being implemented), they directly become invested in the company’s success.

Applications of Continuous Improvement

Continuous improvement can be targeted towards nearly any aspect of your business. Some of the most common areas include:

Process Improvement

CI can be used to identify and eliminate bottlenecks in your manufacturing process or streamline specific workflows. Optimizing processes should be done regularly to increase efficiency and reduce waste.

Product Improvement

Listening to your customers is a great way to identify areas for improvement. Conducting user research and gathering customer feedback will almost always uncover areas ripe for improvement.

Employee Development

CI is about empowering your entire workforce, and one of the most effective ways to do that is by investing in additional training for your employees. Creating opportunities for continuous learning will increase employee engagement, and ensure they stay invested in improving the organization.

The PDCA Framework for Continuous Improvement

The PDCA Framework for Continuous Improvement

When it comes to actually implementing continuous improvement, one of the most popular frameworks is the Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) approach. Here is how it works:

  • Plan: Identify an area where improvement is needed, and then develop a plan of action. In this stage, employee insights are often invaluable in identifying areas that need improvement.
  • Do: Implement the plan, ideally on a small scale.
  • Check: Gather data on the change, and analyze the results to measure its effectiveness.
  • Act: If the change is successful, you can fully implement the plan. If it is not successful, you can make adjustments and repeat the cycle.

As you can see, this framework is designed to work as a continuous loop and be repeated as often as necessary until the desired results are achieved. This framework emphasizes learning from experience and making small changes to result in continuous improvement.

The DMAIC Framework

Another commonly used framework for CI in the manufacturing industry is known as the Define-Measure-Analyze-Improve-Control (DMAIC) method:

  • Define: The first step involves identifying the problem, such as how many defects there are in a product. This stage is also used to specify the goals and scope of the project.
  • Measure: Next, you must gather data based on the current status of the problem, such as defect rates per batch of products produced.
  • Analyze: Using statistical analysis, the data you’ve gathered can help you understand the root cause of the issue. For example, the analysis may determine if the defects are related to a specific machine malfunction.
  • Improve: Once the cause of the issue has been identified, you can begin brainstorming solutions. In the case of a machine malfunction, recalibrating the machine may lead to eliminating the defect.
  • Control: The final step involves creating a system of control to prevent a recurrence of the issue. Creating a schedule of regular machine maintenance would be an example of a control mechanism to prevent the defect from reoccurring.

No matter which framework you decide to use, the idea is to create a systematic approach towards continuous improvement. Using these frameworks keeps improvement at the front of mind, in a sustainable way.

Continuous Improvement in Action

So what does CI look like in action? Let’s examine a hypothetical situation where the DMAIC framework is used with the PDCA framework.

Imagine a manufacturing plant is experiencing a recurring problem with cracks in a specific component it produces. Using the DMAIC/PDCA framework, here is how we can help the situation.

Plan (Define, Measure, Analyze)

After identifying the problem, the team may review the machine settings, performance data, and even interview workers on the production line to extract any information related to the root of the problem. Analyzing the data leads the team to suspect a machine setting may be responsible for producing the cracks. A plan is then developed to test for the cause of the issue.

Do (Improve)

The team implements their plan by adjusting specific settings on the machine, which analysis has determined is the likely cause of the defect.


A test batch is produced using the adjusted machine settings, and the product is inspected to see if the cracks are still appearing. The results are compared to the historical defect rate.

Act (Control)

If the change has resolved the cracking issue, and the defect rate has returned close to the historical baseline or an acceptable level, the new settings are permanently applied and made part of regular operating procedures.

If the changes made fail to correct the issue, then we return to the planning stage and analyze other potential causes of the defect. The framework is then carried out again and repeated until the problem is resolved.

CI in the Real World

Now, let’s take a look at how Manex Consulting used CI to help our client, Mizuho-OSI, revise their manufacturing process to meet their objectives.

Mizuho-OSI, a producer of highly engineered specialty surgical tables, needed to revise its manufacturing process to meet cost, quality, and delivery objectives for its clients.

Manex used several Kaizen-focused activities, such as value stream mapping, to identify areas for improvements. A new production floor layout and material delivery and staging system were implemented to reduce activities that caused delays and non-value-added costs to the manufacturing process.

Using these CI methods, Mizuho-OSI was able to produce significant results:

  • Reduced direct labor content (38.8 hours to 32.7 hours) = 15.7% improvement
  • Reduced lead time (3.5 weeks to 9 hours) = 93% improvement
  • Reduced WIP from $940K to $260K = 73% improvement
  • Increased Trios Base productivity = 10.3% improvement
  • Increased Trios Tops productivity = 49% improvement

Manex also implemented several focused Kaizen activities to reduce costs, improve on-time delivery, and support the requirements for the latest business plan. These changes were all made a permanent part of Mizuho-OSI’s operations.


Businesses that embrace continuous improvement stand to gain a competitive advantage over their peers. Not only that, they can dramatically improve their efficiency, and gain increased customer support and loyalty. This is a compelling reason to invest in creating a culture of continuous improvement in your organization.

Manex Consulting has a proven track record of helping our clients implement the philosophy of continuous improvement in their organizations. Contact us today for a FREE consultation to see how Manex can help your business grow.

Stay tuned for Part 2 where we’ll dive into how you can create a culture of improvement within your organization that will empower your employees to actively participate in the CI process.