In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cross-Sector Research on Continuous Learning and Improvement

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Guidance on Continuous Improvement in the Private Sector
  • Guidance on Continuous Improvement in the Public Sector
  • The Impact of Continuous Improvement in the Private Sector
  • The Impact of Continuous Improvement in the Public Sector
  • Cross-Sector Lessons from Continuous Improvement Initiatives
  • Understanding the Spread of Continuous Improvement
  • Continuous Improvement Methods and Organizational Theory
  • Conceptualizing Continuous Improvement in Organizations
  • The Evolution of Continuous Improvement

Education Cross-Sector Research on Continuous Learning and Improvement
Amelia Peterson, Maxwell Yurkofsky, Jal Mehta
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0239


The body of literature on continuous learning and improvement is divided into applied research documenting or evaluating specific codified methods, and a more theoretical literature about how organizations can learn and improve. Both literatures emerged in the 1970s, and they remained distinct for some time. On the applied side, consultants to industry began to codify the approaches of high-performing companies, producing a set of methods that combined continuous improvement (CI) with a customer orientation, emphasis on teamwork, tools for structured decision making, and systems thinking. One of the earliest and most studied packages of these methods is called Total Quality Management (TQM). Studies documented consistent evidence of associations between TQM implementation and performance in the private sector, but a weaker relationship in the public sector. Theoretical research increasingly explained why this might be so, drawing productively on contingency theory to explain why methods from production may need to be adapted or reconsidered in service or public sectors. Yet the initial reluctance of scholars to follow the demands of managers in deciding what to study led to the underinvestment in direct research on individual CI methods like TQM, which may have contributed to its hype and rapid spread despite mixed results. This rapid spread was then largely explained by scholars via neoinstitutional theories, wherein organizations adopt CI methods as a way of securing legitimacy, rather than because of their technical value. Over time, scholars have taken up a more integrated role in theorizing, investigating, and evaluating CI initiatives, often grounding their empirical research in theories of organizational learning and using this theoretical foundation to deepen our understanding of the conditions under which and the mechanisms by which CI methods work. Yet, particularly in health care, they have struggled with the appropriate standards of evidence and research designs for evaluating CI methods. Again, theoretical perspectives have helped to delineate the challenges. For example, contingency and neoinstitutional theories raise questions about whether conformity with prescribed practices is the best indicator of effective take-up of CI, or whether adaptation is more desirable. This question arose particularly as methods spread to sectors with more fragmented and turbulent environments, difficult-to-monitor tasks, and uncertain technologies (e.g., many public sectors). Faced with growing understanding of the incompatibility of traditional CI methods with the complexity of many contexts, the latest generation of literature on CI in both the private and public sectors promotes more adaptive, less tightly codified methods.

General Overviews

Continuous improvement originated in the private sectors as a method to increase efficiency and create competitive advantage. Deming 1982 provides a foundational case for it, focused on the role of management and improvement to reduce waste and allow companies to be more competitive on quality and cost. Featured methods vary in relation to different theories of how to do this. Defeo and Juran 2010 provides an overview of the wide range of different quality management and continuous improvement methods and their applications to industries in the manufacturing and services sectors. By the 1990s, there were advocates for the adoption of continuous improvement methods in the public sector, especially in health care. Total Quality Management (TQM) was an early spotlighted method, which, as Colin and Stephen 1994 describes, soon spread across different public sectors. Langley, et al. 2009, in its first 1996 edition, provided another highly popular codification, based closely on Deming. More recently, core principles of continuous improvement have been adapted into new methods which respond to some of the perceived weaknesses of the first generation of methods. Doerr 2017 represents one such method in the private sector. Its description of Google’s use of “Objectives and Key Results” (OKRs) is representative of the contrast of the origins of the new improvement methods: where the earlier generation stemmed from manufacturing—which assumed a semiskilled worker who flourished best with close guidance—the next generation are predominantly inspired by digital companies who have built their human resource strategies on the idea of greater employee autonomy in the service of larger goals. In the public sector, the evolution of CI methods has focused on the persistent problem of identifying “improvement” amid the relative complexity of public sector operations. Seddon 2008 is an example of a new method which tackles this problem explicitly, proposing a systems thinking approach whereby success measures follow from an accurate understanding of how value arises for users.

  • Colin, Morgan, and Murgatroyd Stephen. 1994. Total Quality Management in the public sector: An international perspective. London: McGraw-Hill Education.

    Positions TQM as a “paradigm shift” in approaches to public management. Provides an overview of the method and its progenitors and responds to critics of TQM, arguing why, in expanded form, it is suitable for use in the public sector. Later chapters focus on applications in US and UK health care, education, social services, and government services. Discusses why the method often meets with resistance in public sector applications.

  • Defeo, Joseph A., and Joseph M. Juran. 2010. Juran’s quality handbook: The complete guide to performance excellence. 6th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Education.

    First published in 1951 as the Quality Control Handbook and regularly reproduced since then. Juran helped to create the field of quality management and cofounded the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award in the United States, which is used in many research studies as a universal means to identify quality implementation. Introduces a variety of methods and tools and reviews applications in key industries, including both product-based and service-focused organizations.

  • Deming, W. Edwards. 1982. Out of the crisis: Quality, productivity and competitive position. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A foundational text on the potential of continuous improvement to create competitive advantage, aiming to “transfor[m] the style of American management.” Outlines Deming’s “14 Points for Management” and describes at length the application of improvement methods to different stages of business and production processes, in both manufacturing and service sectors. Regularly reproduced since its original publication.

  • Doerr, John. 2017. Measure what matters: How Bono, the Gates Foundation, and Google rock the world with OKRs. New York: Portfolio.

    Introduces OKR, one of the most widely used of the new generation of improvement approaches, adopted, at least in name, by many leading Silicon Valley companies. In contrast to many earlier methods, OKRs allow for more loosely defined aims (objectives) and fewer measurable targets (key results) which can be shared across teams. Doerr proposes that this makes the approach both more motivating and more adaptable to different sectors and contexts.

  • Langley, Gerald J., Ronald D. Moen, Kevin M. Nolan, Thomas W. Nolan, Clifford L. Norman, and Lloyd P. Provost. 2009. The improvement guide: A practical approach to enhancing organizational performance. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley.

    The second edition of this highly popular book. Textbook-like in form, including generic principles, mostly derived from Deming, and guidance on implementing the “Model for Improvement,” based around Plan-Do-Study-Act cycles. Includes illustrations from both private and public sector applications and an appendix of methods and tools.

  • Seddon, John. 2008. Systems thinking in the public sector: The failure of the reform regime . . . and a manifesto for a better way. Axminster, UK: Triarchy Press.

    Notable for its analysis of the failings of New Public Management (NPM) and its details on the workings of an alternative approach to improvement, with applications to public services such as housing and social care. While the approach is represented diagrammatically, and has elsewhere been codified as the “Vanguard method,” what Seddon describes in cases is extremely fluid and mostly comes down to the application of thick local knowledge to well-clarified problems, similar to Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA; see Andrews, et al. 2013, cited under Evolution of Continuous Improvement).

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