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A continual improvement process, also often called a continuous improvement process (abbreviated as CIP or CI), is an ongoing effort to improve products, services, or processes. These efforts can seek "incremental" improvement over time or "breakthrough" improvement all at once. Delivery (customer valued) processes are constantly evaluated and improved in the light of their efficiency, effectiveness and flexibility.
Some see CIPs as a meta-process for most management systems (such as business process management, quality management, project management, and program management). W. Edwards Deming, a pioneer of the field, saw it as part of the 'system' whereby feedback from the process and customer were evaluated against organisational goals. The fact that it can be called a management process does not mean that it needs to be executed by 'management'; but rather merely that it makes decisions about the implementation of the delivery process and the design of the delivery process itself.
Some successful implementations use the approach known as Kaizen (the translation of kai (“change”) zen (“good”) is “improvement”). This method became famous from Imai's 1986 book Kaizen: The Key to Japan's Competitive Success.
Key features of Kaizen include:
The elements above are the more tactical elements of CIP. The more strategic elements include deciding how to increase the value of the delivery process output to the customer (effectiveness) and how much flexibility is valuable in the process to meet changing needs.
The CIP-concept is also used in Environmental Management Systems (EMS), such as ISO 14000 and EMAS. The term "continual improvement", not "continuous improvement", is used in ISO 14000, and is understood to refer to an ongoing series of small or large-scale improvements which are each done discretely, i.e. in a step-wise fashion. Several differences exist between the CIP concept as it is applied in quality management and environmental management. CIP in EMS aims to improve the natural consequences of products and activities, not the products and activities as such. Secondly, there is no client-orientation in EMS-related CIP. Also, CIP in EMS is not limited to small, incremental improvements as in Kaizen, it also includes innovations of any scale.
In English-language linguistic prescription there is a common piece of usage advice that the word "continuous" should be used for things that are continuous in a way literally or figuratively equal to the mathematical sense of the word, whereas the word "continual" should be used for things that continue in discrete jumps (that is, quantum-wise). When this distinction is enforced, it is more accurate to speak of "continual improvement" and "continual improvement processes" than of "continuous improvement" or "continuous improvement processes".
Meanwhile, for several decades it has been common usage in the linguistic corpus of business management to use the one set term, "continuous improvement", to cover both graph shapes in an umbrella fashion. It is merely the way the word has been conventionally used in this context, in a common understanding that existed regardless of prescriptive preferences. However, ISO has chosen the more careful usage for its standards including ISO 9000 and ISO 14000; so it may be reasonable to expect that usage among business managers will evolve in coming decades to conform to the preferred usage (and in some cases, already has).