Continuous Improvement (March 99)


John C

Continuous Improvement
Most activities commonly used to ‘improve’ a process are not ‘improvement’ activities at all. They are ‘maintenance’ or ‘corrective’. ie; they try to ensure the process is and does just what it was intended to do, in the way that it was intended. Audit does this. Inspection does this. Even manufacturing engineering does this, or little more than this, in most organisations.
I see ‘continuous improvement’ as small, incremental steps resulting from an ongoing analysis of the process, looking for opportunities to reduce waste and improve predictability, not just to keep the process doing what it should be doing, but making it do it better and differently. (in today’s world, this is a luxury)
4.14.3, Preventive action, seems to be telling me to do this but I can see problems; If I audit Accounts and say; “You only empty the invoices in-tray once per day (once per month?) and this is unhelpful for Procurement”, they will tell me that that is the way it has always been done and they don’t have resources to do it any other way. I can’t write it up as a non-conformance.
I can go to 4.2.3, Quality Planning, and try to get them to establish targets and plans to achieve them. (or I can throw snowballs at the moon)
Continuous Improvement is a nice thing to do. In fact, to my mind, it is the only thing to do - nothing else can guarantee your survival - but it is a very difficult thing to get people to do. We need all the levers we can get our hands on and we need to take them to Management review and bulldose them through. But, even if we get a good hearing, the chances are that nothing will happen. Anyone can understand the need to fix this mornings fires, but noone can delegate time to address an issue that is marginal (hense small, incremental progress), let alone go out to look for something that may not exist.
Is it Preventive action?
Is it Quality planning?
Does ISO 9000 offer any other leverage?
But, before we get embroiled in this; It is just an opener taken from my perspective. I’m sure there is a wide range of points of view, concerning continuous improvement, and maybe we should open it out first.
rgds, John C

Don Winton

Most activities commonly used to ‘improve’ a process are not ‘improvement’ activities at all. They are ‘maintenance’ or ‘corrective’

I tend to agree with this statement somewhat. Some, not all, organizations like to remain within their ‘culture.’ To try to make improvements is a losing battle. I faced this a lot at a previous employer.

I see ‘continuous improvement’ as small, incremental steps resulting from an ongoing analysis of the process…

That is precisely what it is. The PDCA illustrates this. It does not have a STOP. It is an on-going process. I see this a lot: A Pareto of a previous process and a second Pareto showing the same process after an improvement project. It IS better, say a 25% improvement. But, what is ignored is the fact that the new Pareto still shows areas for improvement. But they become so enamoured with what WAS accomplished, what CAN be accomplished is ignored.

…they will tell me that that is the way it has always been done and they don’t have resources to do it any other way.

Yea, the old IHABTW (It Has Always Been This Way) syndrome. I hate that. The previous employer I mentioned earlier was a CLASSIC example. Here is just one of many: I initiated an improvement project, on my own, that demonstrated a method that would, through yield improvements, save the company approximately $250,000 over five years if implemented. It involved a statistical method for wafer selection (a bit involved to go into here) prior to the manufacture of the semiconductor chips. I even designed a database and wrote a search algorithm that would select the wafers based on performance expectations. It was ignored and that company no longer exists. Not because of this particular IHABTW, but on their business practice in general, based for the most part on IHABTW.

Most would rather live with a problem they cannot solve than accept a solution they cannot understand.

Does ISO 9000 offer any other leverage?

IMHO, not really. Continuous Improvement is something that should be part of the Quality Management System, but ISO 900x does not offer clear requirements for CI. I think ISO9000:2000 offers a CI scheme, but I am not sure about that.


Jim Evans


I have experienced this same syndrome in some of the places I have been. I like to call it "historical inertia". The longer something has been that way; the more people like to keep it that way (or the harder it is to change.


[This message has been edited by Jim Evans (edited 15 September 2000).]

Ted Spickler

We have had some success in encouraging incremental improvement steps by institutionalizing teams who search for ways to design improvements in the way they do their jobs. In some cases teams are formed by management to address a particular problem but the really interesting teams are formed by operators who see a way to do something different that had not occurred to management. A recognition system offers the best of these teams some corporate visibility. A point of controversy exists about recognition: should we be unhappy because workers join a team just to get a fancy dinner vs joining a team because they want to make a significant difference for the company? Either way we win but recognition seems to be a double edged sword.


The Grand Canyon.

I'm feeling a bit contrary, so I'll point out that everyone wants total immediate buy-in on their plans and reaches exasperation point rather quickly. If you can't get acceptance of your big money-saving plan, perhaps you should tackle something smaller.

John C mentions "historical inertia", which I like as a term. Did you know that inertia is the tendency for a mass in motion to remain in motion as well as a mass at rest to remain at rest. If you can start the historical inertia rolling in your favor with small adjustments to attitude and process you'd sooner or later, (probably later), have a locomotive roaring down the tracks you laid.

By the way, the Colorado river didn't let an unyielding mass get in its way, and incrementally produced the Grand Canyon.

Top Bottom