While there are many important quality management principles, this time we will look at continuous improvement. Perhaps the idea most commonly associated with quality, it means never being satisfied with the status quo. By constantly looking for methods of improvement, the company and the employees both benefit. Engaged staff are more satisfied with their work while contributing to make the company better.

ASQ explains it this way: “Continuous improvement, sometimes called continual improvement, is the ongoing improvement of products, services or processes through incremental and breakthrough improvements. These efforts can seek “incremental” improvement over time or “breakthrough” improvement all at once.”

Dr. Joseph A. DeFeo describes it this way in a Juran blog post: “When looking to define Continuous Improvement, one will find that it is used in multiple ways to describe multiple methods. In some instances, it could be used to describe the process of carrying out daily kaizens (Japanese for ‘improvement’); improvement through quality circles; or small, daily incremental improvements.”

One quality guru offers a lot of wisdom when it comes to improvement: Dr. W. Edwards Deming. Indeed, his name is almost synonymous with continuous improvement. Dr. Deming’s well-known theory of continuous improvement revolves around four quality steps: Plan. Do. Study. Act. (Study is also referred to as Check.)

As the Deming Institute explains, “The PDSA Cycle (Plan-Do-Study-Act) is a systematic process for gaining valuable learning and knowledge for the continual improvement of a product, process, or service. Also known as the Deming Wheel, or Deming Cycle, this integrated learning - improvement model was first introduced to Dr. Deming by his mentor, Walter Shewhart of the famous Bell Laboratories in New York.”

The Deming Institute summarizes it this way:

Plan: This involves identifying a goal or purpose, formulating a theory, defining success metrics and putting a plan into action.

Do: components of the plan are implemented, such as making a product.  

Study: outcomes are monitored to test the validity of the plan for signs of progress and success, or problems and areas for improvement.

Act: closes the cycle, integrating the learning generated by the entire process, which can be used to adjust the goal, change methods, reformulate a theory altogether, or broaden the learning – improvement cycle from a small-scale experiment to a larger implementation Plan.”

This cycle can be repeated endlessly, to target a new problem or to address lingering issues. Either way, it’s clear that resting on your laurels is not part of the quality body of knowledge. Rather, continuous improvement is always the goal. This is spelled out as one of Deming’s 14 points: “Improve constantly and forever the system of production and service, to improve quality and productivity, and thus constantly decrease costs.”

While the 14 points are well-known, other Deming ideas might take a little digging to find. During the recent ASQ World Conference in Fort Worth, Kathy Lyall of the ASQ Inspection Division discussed a lesser known work written by Edward Martin Baker, one of Deming’s associates. The book, entitled “The Symphony of Profound Knowledge: W. Edwards Deming’s Score for Leading, Performing, and Living in Concert,” offers another perspective on Deming’s work. This idea of working on harmony make sense, especially coming from Deming, a musician, singer and composer of liturgical music.

No matter which theory you subscribe to, driving improvements take effort. Improvements can come from many different aspects of the business, whether it’s reducing the cost of quality, tracking documents more efficiently, or just streamlining processes. One way to advance is to learn from nonconformances. The right tools can help. In particular, software is available to tackle this issue and help companies avoid repeating the same problems. For example, this might mean assigning corrective and preventive action (CAPA) tasks and then tracking employee progress. From there, employees could potentially use the eight disciplines (8D) problem solving method. The 8D method, commonly used in the automotive industry, is a way to solve problems and prevent them from recurring. Sometimes the easiest improvement option is just to stop solving the same problems over and over again.

Beyond improvement, there are a range of quality management principles that may help your organization. If you’d like to know more about other quality management principles, according to ISO, the seven quality management principles are: customer focus, leadership, engagement of people, process approach, evidence-based decision making, relationship management, and improvement.

Quality gurus such as Juran and Deming may also provide inspiration. Their ideas have lasted because of the success organizations have had with these approaches. Seeking out better processes may not come naturally to your organization. But as difficult as it may be, it’s worth working on. Becoming complacent in terms of quality will not lead to satisfied customers. And it could endanger the business as well if quality levels slip.

Instead, strive to make the company better and delight customers. Employees enjoy the challenge and having their voices heard. Customers appreciate new features and service. And the organization can grow. When it comes to continuous improvement, what’s not to like? True, it does take effort. But seeing this effort pay off will yield dividends for your organization. Get started today.