Understanding the Continuous Improvement Process (CiP) as it Relates to Quality Management

For a quality manager or engineer, nothing matters more than preventing a fire before it happens. The continuous improvement process (CiP) can address these concerns, helping the organization find new and better ways to cut costs without sacrificing quality.

The continuous improvement model is at the heart of all quality management (QM) systems, including the most common Six Sigma, Toyota Production System, and Total Quality Management theories. In fact, it is a leading tenant in the overarching study of QM and one of six factors that result in more competitive companies that are customer focused and therefore more profitable.

Where Continuous Improvement Process Began

CiP is as much about tactics as it is about shifting organizational culture over time to value improvement.

In the 1960’s, Edward Deming pioneered the use of CiP as part of the quality management process, relying heavily on feedback. Later, Imai introduced the concept of kaizen (“good change” or “improvement”) in his 1986 work, “Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success.”

Kaizen focuses even more heavily on system feedback than Deming, especially from employees, who can make more, smaller changes over time that are less expensive and more effective long term.

Four Step Action Plan for Implementing CiP

The plan-do-check-act (PDCA) cycle is also known as the Deming Cycle or Shewhart Cycle and is the most widely used tool for continuous improvement. Popularized by Edward Deming, this cycle is a repetitive four-stage model designed to enhance continuous improvement efforts within a QM program.

The plan has four stages:

  1. Plan (identify an opportunity and plan for change)
  2. Do (implement the change on a small scale)
  3. Check (use data to analyze the results of the change)
  4. Act (if the change was successful, implement on wider scale and continually reassess)

The PDCA cycle is simple, yet profound, and emphasizes the small changes that are at the heart of CiP. Proponents of QA have long understood that incremental changes made over time have a much greater impact than larger changes made at great cost.

Other methods of continuous improvement (which include Six Sigma, Lean or the Toyota Production System, and Total Quality Management), emphasize employee engagement, measuring and systemizing processes, and reducing variations, defects, and cycle times, but all rely heavily on the CiP.

Benefits to CiP

One of the deepest benefits to CiP is that the identification of opportunities for improvement comes not from top management, but from employees. The bottom-up system of improvement means that those closest to the problems–the employees–are the ones truly equipped to solve the organization’s quality problems.

Further, since employees are most likely to recommend smaller, easy-to-implement changes (or sometimes eliminating processes) improvements are generally extremely cost effective. Organizations find employees take greater ownership, which decreases turnover, and an organization that experiences high rates of turnover is an organization constantly reacting to fires–not preventing them.

Tips for Making it Work

Four factors can greatly impact CiP success. Those include:

  • Focused, consistent leadership
  • Focus on prevention (and not reaction)
  • Unrelenting commitment to QM
  • Long term mindset

While CiP relies on employee engagement at the bottom level, engagement and support at the top level are also crucial. Inadequate support from organization leadership will ultimately stymie efforts toward improvement.

A focus on risk management and the prevention of issues (instead of reacting to issues that have already happened) is also vital. Organization incentives must be carefully scrutinized to ensure that employees that put out fires aren’t being more heavily rewarded than employees who prevent fires.

Finally, an unrelenting, constant focus and a long term mindset must be adopted to ensure the benefits of CiP in an organization. The beating heart of any QM system, continuous improvement well actualized will result in the best possible results for the long term competitive advantage of the organization.

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