Quality management programs are often associated with large organizations, such as automotive manufacturing or large healthcare systems. These organizations often have teams dedicated to quality control, and they may leverage specific business process methodologies such as Lean or Six Sigma. While that level of sophistication may not be possible or even necessary for your business, there are still many continuous quality improvement tools that are easy to implement and can have an enormous impact on your organization, no matter its size.
Some of the following tools have been borrowed from Total Quality Management, Lean, and the Toyota production system. Still, they can be used independently of these methodologies to accelerate improvement in any organization.
The baseline for quality improvement is Standard Work. Put simply; Standard Work is the current best practice for any process or task. All employees perform the work according to the Standard until an improvement cycle results in a controlled change. Standard Work is so important because it creates the environment necessary for consistent results. In addition, it gives managers and process operators a reference point for assessing whether any changes to the process actually result in improvement.
The PDSA Improvement Cycle
PDSA is a structured approach to improvement. It stands for Plan, Do, Study, Adjust. The cycle starts with the Plan step, in which the team states a goal or purpose of the improvement effort. Next, they formulate a theory of the problem and gather the necessary people and resources to achieve the goal. During the Do step, the elements of the plan are implemented. During the Study step, the outcomes are observed, and the results are monitored to identify any problems or opportunities for improvement. Finally, the Act step finishes the cycle by fully implementing any successful changes and updating the Standard work to fit the new process. These steps can be repeated over and over as the process gets nearer to producing perfect quality outputs.
The 5 Whys
The 5 Whys is a problem-solving approach that can be useful during the Plan phase of PDSA or any time that unexpected results occur. The goal is to find the root cause of a quality problem rather than just to put bandaids on the symptoms. The process is simple, craft a problem statement and ask Why as many times as necessary to reach the root cause. Usually, five times does the trick, but it may take more.
Process Control Charts
Control charts are an excellent way to visualize the Study phase of the PDCA cycle. A control chart tracks the measurable results of a process over time. It consists of a graph containing a central line for the average and an upper and lower control limit. By comparing current results with past results, managers can identify consistent processes, out-of-control processes, and trends that indicate a change has occurred. In addition, control charts are constructive for sorting out normal process variation from special cause variation that requires intervention.
The word Gemba means the actual place in Japanese. Gemba walks are a popular Lean management technique that can be used by any leader who wants to show respect for employees, observe work where it happens, and identify potential areas of improvement. During a Gemba walk, the leader goes to the workspace and asks questions about why and how tasks are performed. This simple approach is one of the best tools for building a culture of improvement. Leaders don’t make changes during the change, but rather document any possible targets for a PDSA cycle.
Value Stream Maps
One of the keys to effective quality improvement is eliminating any process, task, or activity that is not delivering value to the customer. Every step in a process introduces an opportunity for error, so eliminating overprocessing goes a long way toward consistent quality. An excellent tool for finding this type of waste is a value stream map. A value stream map displays all steps in a specific process and quantifies the time and volume taken at each stage. Value stream maps show the flow of materials and information as they progress through the process and ultimately provide value to the customer. Any steps that are not critical to the flow of value should be considered for elimination.
A Fishbone Diagram, also known as an Ishikawa diagram or cause and effect chart, is a visual management tool used to identify all the potential causes of a quality problem to find the root causes. The Fishbone Diagram groups these causes into categories and provides a structure to document them. When used effectively, it helps teams address the actual cause of the problem.
While you might have different categories of problems, the 6 Ms are typically used. They include man, methods, machines, materials, measurements, and mother nature (environment).
Rapid Improvement Events
During a rapid improvement event, also known as a Kaizen event, a dedicated team with a facilitator puts aside all other work to focus on a specific problem for three to five days. Rapid improvement events aren’t necessary for every situation or change, but they are ideal for complex problems, problems that involve more than one functional area, or problems that are creating a significant quality issue. These events typically have a defined project charter, and they often follow the PDSA cycle of improvement.
Improvement Management Software
One of the best ways to accelerate, control, and measure quality improvement is by implementing improvement management software. The best solutions make it easy for team members to suggest opportunities for improvement from any time or device. Workflow tools including alerts and notifications ensure that action is taken on every opportunity, and robust reporting makes it easy to calculate the value of each improvement. The solution becomes a repository of knowledge for the organization and helps ensure that each change is more effective than the last.
Any or all of these continuous quality management tools can go a long way toward developing a culture of quality improvement in your organization. Used alone or in any combination, they bring structure to problem-solving and give managers a way to achieve measurable results.