Quality and continuous improvement are directly related, experts say.

For example, all quality staff must understand their role and how it impacts the customer, says industry veteran and Quality columnist Jim L. Smith, president of Jim Smith Quality Institute.  While not everyone is a front-line worker, everyone's job depends on satisfying the customer.

“Quality giants like Dr. W. Edwards Deming, Dr. Joseph M. Juran, and Armand Fiegenbaum expounded that workers/employees needed to be treated in much the same vein as external customers,” Smith explains. “In this manner, product progressing through the process has increasingly higher levels of quality.  If employees treat the product like it was going to be purchased by them or a member of their family there is greater appreciation for quality, price and value.”

Carlos Midence, president and general manager, Shoplogix, says that quality is integral to continuous improvement.  

“The foundational concept of continuous improvement is the relentless elimination of wasteful activities, and poor quality is one of them,” he says. “Continuous improvement professionals typically have an obsessive approach to identifying root causes, and this lends itself well to improving quality.”

When approaching a quality-focused Kaizen event, leaders are generally trying to get to the root cause of a defect and prevent it from happening in the first place, whether through process or product re-engineering, Midence says. “The ultimate measure of continuous improvement is improved throughput, and you typically can't get to the optimal state without improving first pass yield,” he says.

Continuous improvement keeps quality top of mind, so that when an opportunity arises, leaders and front-line staff lean toward disciplined improvement rather than a knee-jerk reaction of throwing solutions at the problem, says ASQ board member Susan E. Peiffer.

“Continuous improvement seeks to improve the quality of processes on an on-going basis. It looks for identification of the root cause with problem solving techniques and expands to view how the process can be improved to eliminate future similar problems from arising,” Peiffer says.

But having an improvement program is not as useful as having an improvement culture, says Kelly Allan, senior associate, Kelly Allan Associates, Ltd., and chair of Advisory Council of The W. Edwards Deming Institute.

“Programs come and go. Improvement is a muscle-building aspect of competitive advantage and innovation,” says Allan. “A culture of improvement means sustainability. It means ‘the way we think around here.’”   

As such, leaders who want to support continual improvement must strive for what Allan calls a “we-collaborative” culture of people who think about improvement as a part of their jobs.  

“An improvement culture is just as important, and really, more important, as it is to make a difference in productivity, quality, and customer service,” Allan explains.  “Productivity and quality are essential, of course, but such results merely get you a seat at the table in the market, these days.  It’s a Deming-based culture that gives you the ongoing competitive edge.”

What is the best way to encourage a continuous improvement culture?  While organizations have historically used rewards to entice employees to support these efforts, upper management’s ongoing and visible support is the best way to make continuous improvement “a way of life,” Smith says.  “The environment to treat everyone with value, trust, and honesty will be the fuel for the continuous improvement engine.”

Peiffer encourages executives to give support both verbally and through actions, and she urges leaders to remove barriers to success, as well as to ensure teams — especially front-lineworkers especially front-line­ — have needed resources.

Midence stands by classic change management frameworks.  

“Usually, I find a mix of internal experts and outsiders work well to have a healthy tension of best practices versus internal know-how. At least some of these team members need to be dedicated to continuous improvement,” he says. “It cannot be a side project for the production team.”

Secondly, a strong data-driven, objective process supported by technology helps, he says.  

“Typically, if you lead with a strong process, and pick technology that enables that process, you will have better buy-in from the teams,” he says.  

Attitudes around continuous improvement programs have changed over time, experts say.

Smith says respect for employees’ values and opinions has grown.

“From a personal perspective, I worked at a Fortune 50 company.  When I began in the mid 1960s, the management approach was more [of a] dictatorial — ‘do-what-I-say, when-I-say-it’ kind of approach,” Smith says.

As employees became increasingly educated and had more career options, this changed.

“Companies in the mid 1970s who wanted to survive realized their management's approach had to adjust to the times,” Smith explains. “

COVID has also prompted action, Peiffer says. Quality professionals should take note, and guide their teams to better define problems, perform analyses, and evaluate solutions before implementing them. “There seems to be more acceptance for using the right tool for a project or continuous improvement initiative without a title of Six Sigma or Lean,” she says.

Instead of ‘why should I do continuous improvement?’ the conversation has changed to ‘how can I deliver this as quickly and efficiently as possible?’ Midence says. This is partly due to education, he says, as he sees continuous improvement in both engineering schools and business program curriculums.

Both attitudes and methodologies have continued to evolve, Allan says.

“For example, 40 years ago, Deming was virtually alone in talking about how command-and-control ways of managing put people in a prison,” he says. “His points 8 and 9 from the famous 14 Points are about driving out fear and breaking down barriers between departments.  

“Those points sounded crazy at the time.  But now, companies that have embraced Deming’s teachings are running way ahead of others.  Even in this impossible-to-hire economy, Deming-based companies often have a waiting list of people who want to work for them.  We are observing that Command-and-Control companies are having to offer a big premium in pay and benefits to get people to work for them.”

While continuous improvement software saves organizations time, Smith says there is no silver bullet when it comes to continuous improvement.

“I believe it still comes down to personal interaction among and between employees to get everyone working together for the common good,” Smith says.