Service improvements in health care can improve provision, make cost savings, streamline services and reduce clinical errors. However, on its own it may not be adequate for improving patient outcomes and quality of care. The complexity of healthcare provision makes service improvement a challenge, and there is little evidence on whether improvement initiatives change healthcare practices and improve care. To understand the concept of service development within health care, it is necessary to explore the national context and how the NHS has adopted improvement initiatives. To equip the nursing workforce with the skills necessary to make positive change, higher education institutions have developed courses that include the topic within their pre-registration programmes. However, service improvement is a learned skill that nurses need to practise in order to become competent.