Process improvement was been a part of business since the early 1900s. In 1911, Frederick Taylor introduced the concept in his book "The Scientific Method of Management." But it was not until World War II that the need for process improvement and quality management took center stage in business. The demands of global war required that industries produce vast quantities of low-cost military supplies that would stand up to the demands of combat.
Since then, a variety of process improvement and quality management tools have been developed and deployed throughout business including the Shewhart Cycle, Value Analysis Teams, ISO/Q9000 and Design of Experiments. Other approaches include Total Quality Management, Kaizen and Six Sigma, Balanced Risk, and Continuous Improvement.
What Is Continuous Improvement
Unlike other process improvement and quality management models, Continuous Improvement (CI) is not a project, event or one-time process. It is a way of doing business that focuses on constant efforts to improve product or service quality to meet customer requirements and strategic business objectives. Rather than focusing on large process re-design projects, CI focuses on making incremental improvements in a process with the goal of increasing value to the customer.
Businesses committed to Continuous Improvement frequently use the Deming Circle model, more commonly known as Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA). CI teams will go through this experimental cycle through several times, building each PDCA cycle on the success of the previous cycle. The model begins with planning the improvement based on an identified problem or mistake. Do means designing and doing the improvement, including collecting data and testing the improvement. In the Check step, the team measures and evaluates the improvement, and in the Act step, they take action to hard-wire the improvement into the process and monitor daily operations.
Organizational Commitment to Quality
An organizational commitment to quality is the driving principle behind CI. A CI-focused business is committed to providing quality products or services in a timely, cost-effective way. In addition, it sees improvement as an ongoing process and not an end result. In such an organization, problems and mistakes are not punished, but embraced and used as opportunities for improvement.
A process exists to meet customer requirements, and those needs drive Continuous Improvement. Identifying, defining and balancing the various customer requirements is the aim of the process -- the desired outcome based on customers’ requirements. Simply stated, quality is defined by the customers.
Continuous improvement uses a process approach. This approach assumes that all work is a process that can be described, studied and improved based on customer feedback and data. For example, cycle time measures the time required to complete a process and is a key indicator for process improvement.
An integral component of the process approach involves identifying problems or defects in the process, finding their source and then correcting them. CI often begins with identifying and resolving problems in the early steps of a process because there is a ripple or process-flow effect. Improvements in the early steps of a process have a positive effect on later steps in the process.