What Is Continuous Improvement in Manufacturing?

Written by: Emily Himes

Read Time: 3 min

Continuous improvement is a critical manufacturing strategy, but implementation often brings obstacles. What steps can you take to stay in the game?

What is continuous improvement in manufacturing and why is it important?

Continuous improvement in manufacturing is the ongoing process of making your manufacturing floor more efficient, streamlined, and sustainable— and is a long-trusted business strategy to gain a competitive edge. But as adoption has grown, that advantage shrinks as the benefits that were once groundbreaking become commonplace. While traditional improvement programs give organizations lots of data, the most important insights are often acted upon immediately, while the following insights are less impactful. But digitizing your continuous improvement strategy can expose previously hidden critical production bottlenecks to achieve efficiency and quality gains.

The benefits of adopting continuous improvement in manufacturing

Improves product quality

Quality products are a sign of healthy manufacturing operations and a cornerstone of customer satisfaction. Digitally supported improvement initiatives will allow you to identify defects sooner and trace them back to root causes.

Eliminates waste

CI initiatives such as Lean and Six Sigma both strive to eliminate waste to boost efficiency. Used together, they improve introducing efficiencies that optimize operating costs.

Enhances customer satisfaction

To evolve with market demands, organizations must optimize their practices with customers in mind. And by keeping a close eye on current events and trends, they can more strategically direct continuous improvement initiatives.

Standardizes process

Implementing continuous improvement to standardize manufacturing processes can boost morale and factory floor productivity. Those clear, consistent procedures reduce variability and errors while improving quality.

Challenges of continuous improvement in manufacturing

External Challenges

Rapid changes in market demand can disrupt longer-term improvement initiatives. These challenges are complicated by supply chain disruptions or regulatory changes which require frequent adjustments to the manufacturing process.

Internal Challenges

Any type of change is often met with resistance, especially if it’s compounded with a lack of resources or insufficient training. A robust change management plan is key to internal adoption and streamlines the rollout of new workflows.

Common methodologies for continuous improvement in manufacturing

Business process management (BPM) approach

A BPM framework optimizes and automates business processes. By focusing on optimization, BPM strives to ensure that all business operations are running at high efficiency, thus reducing lost time as well as scrap and rework.

Total quality management (TQM) approach

Community is key with TQM, a framework that focuses on the participation of all employees in all corners of an organization. It is based on the belief that quality and customer satisfaction can improve when all members of an organization are committed to maintaining high standards.

Six Sigma

Six Sigma, a statistical approach to eliminating project defects and maintaining consistency, minimizes variability in the manufacturing process. When used with next-generation digital manufacturing capabilities, it can bring about increased efficiency, accuracy, and cash flow—all while reducing operational costs.

Lean management

While Lean management is similar to Six Sigma in that they are both designed to make organizations more efficient, it focuses more on directly addressing waste. In Lean, unnecessary transportation, excess inventory, and defective products are all considered waste, which is then minimized by making the most of labor, materials, machinery, and time.


The 5S methodology delivers better efficiency and productivity to physical workplaces. Its five steps include:

  • Sort: Eliminate unnecessary items from the work area.
  • Set in order: Arrange the remaining items for easy access.
  • Shine: Clean the environment regularly.
  • Standardize: Implement standardized procedures for maintaining the first three steps.
  • Sustain: Foster a culture of continuous improvement through regular training and audits to ensure adherence to the established standards.


Complicated workflows are confusing and difficult to maintain. Kanban’s visual method for managing workflows streamlines complex project mapping. By using boards that are divided into three columns (versions of “To Do,” “Doing,” and “Done”), users can create and track cards that represent individual projects or tasks. The method helps individuals, teams, and even entire organizations manage continuous improvement in manufacturing by visually showcasing current inventory levels and facilitating regular reviews of processes.

Just-in-Time manufacturing (JIT)

Just-in-Time inventory systems align raw-material orders directly with manufacturing schedules, aiming to reduce waste, improve efficiency, and enhance responsiveness to customer demand.

Toyota Production System (TPS)

The Toyota Production System (TPS) is a comprehensive methodology for streamlining production processes with continuous improvement in manufacturing organizations. It supports eliminating waste, enhancing efficiency, and delivering high-quality products. Beyond productivity, TPS also fosters a collaborative culture and employee involvement.


The SMED (Single Minute Exchange of Dies) system is a lean manufacturing principle for doing more with less, especially when it comes to changeovers. The changeover time for equipment replacement can cause costly, unexpected downtime. With SMED, employees are empowered to prepare changeovers for more efficiency.

How to implement continuous improvement in manufacturing?

Identify the objective

The first step toward achieving continuous improvement in manufacturing requires identifying specific, measurable objectives that align with the organization’s strategic goals. Clearly defined objectives provide direction and a benchmark for measuring progress.

Establish the implementation process

It’s important to develop a structured plan outlining the steps needed to achieve the identified objectives. The plan might map out timelines, resources, and a team organizational chart to ensure everyone understands their roles and responsibilities.

Communicate the process and its benefits

Strong communication is integral to all improvement initiatives. It’s important to make sure all stakeholders have a shared understanding of the improvement process and the benefits it brings to the organization—and by keeping everyone on the same page, manufacturing leaders can help build buy-in and encourage active participation from the entire team.

Monitor and measure outcomes

Continuous improvement in manufacturing requires ongoing monitoring and measurement of outcomes to assess progress and identify areas for further enhancement. During this stage, it’s important to return to the identified KPIs and benchmarks set in the first step to help in making data-driven decisions and maintaining momentum.

Review and celebrate

Lastly, it’s important that teams celebrate the progress they make. Enterprise-wide continuous improvement doesn’t happen overnight—it’s an ongoing process that takes time and effort every single day, on behalf of every employee involved. Celebrating milestones not only recognizes efforts but also motivates the team to sustain their commitment to ongoing improvement.

The future of continuous improvement in manufacturing

With advanced technologies such as AI, IoT, and machine learning on the rise, it’s no secret that manufacturing organizations will seek out automated procedures to further enhance efficiency and help continuous improvement initiatives. With a heightened emphasis on sustainability, these technologies will be used to drive innovations aimed at reducing waste and improving resource efficiency. And by integrating these practices, manufacturers can gain a competitive advantage, maintain high quality standards, and meet evolving environmental and consumer demands.

Continuous improvement and digital manufacturing solutions

Regardless of the specific approach that manufacturers use in their CI efforts, many are missing specific insights that drive efficient problem-solving. That’s why over half of manufacturing leaders surveyed are looking to bolster their CI efforts with real-time data to inform faster corrective actions, with 40% focused on faster root cause analysis.

PTC’s digital manufacturing solutions can:

  • Help manufacturing leaders identify where they are losing the most production time, so they will know which bottlenecks to focus on and the likely results on the unit, line, facility, or even the entire production network.
  • Increase efficiency on manufacturing floors by up to 20% by implementing bottleneck and performance analysis, resulting in millions of dollars in impact.

Scale Your Continuous Improvement Initiatives

Learn more about how you can elevate your continuous improvement efforts to achieve lasting cost savings and a robust competitive advantage in PTC’s latest eBook. Read Now
Tags: Industrial Internet of Things Thingworx Increase Manufacturing Productivity

About the Author

Emily Himes Emily is a Content Marketing Specialist on PTC’s Commercial Marketing team based in Boston, MA. Her writing supports a variety of PTC’s product and service offerings.