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Step 6: Incremental Improvement (PDCA)


Arthur M. Schneiderman

Much has been written by both myself and others, about incremental improvement.  I recommend the books by Kume (for methodology) and Shiba, Graham and Walden (for organization-wide deployment).  

To put this step in perspective though, keep in mind that incremental improvement is the essence of evolution and an ever-present human activity, ongoing since the very dawn of humankind three million years ago.  What has changed most in the last half-century are the principal players in this activity.  

From the start of the industrial revolution to the middle of the 20th century, the responsibility for process improvement increasingly lay with management or their designees, the industrial engineers.  The result was eloquently captured by Charlie Chaplin in his 1936 epic movie Modern Times.  The process worker was told "don't think, just follow the standard operating procedures." The worker became nothing more than a pre-robot.  Although Frederick W. Taylor is usually credited with the creation of this trend, Peter Drucker has shown that this in fact is incorrect.  It was his followers that drove this trend toward improvement specialists.  Taylor's writings themselves are completely consistent with modern incremental improvement practices.

In the early 1950's, following the seminal visits by Deming and Juran, the Japanese tried a different process improvement paradigm:  empower all process workers to not only do their daily job, but also to improve the way they did that job.  But, empowerment is different from delegation.  Japanese managers went on to train the workers in the basic scientific methodology, set aside a portion of their workday (about 5-10%) for improvement activities, and reward and recognize their success to catalyze the required cultural changes.

The 7-step method (described in my Strategy & Business article) is a simplified scientific methodology for identifying and eliminating root causes of the gap between current and potential process performance.  It represents a special case of the Deming or Shewhart PDCA Cycle: Plan-Do-Check-Act.  The 7-QC tools: the graph, check sheet, pareto diagram, cause-and-effect diagram (a.k.a. the Ishikawa or fishbone diagram), scatter diagram, histogram, and control chart represent the principal tools.  

For more complex processes, data often takes on the form of verbal statements of fact rather than a series of numbers.  Here, the 7-Management and Planning Tools: the KJ (or it's simplified form, the affinity), relations, matrix, tree, PDPC, and arrow diagrams and matrix data analysis, prove most valuable.  For the most complex processes, where interconnections between activities can be highly non-linear, simulation tools such as System Dynamics modeling become essential.

Taken together, the loop formed by steps 4 and 6, constitute the essence of Total Quality Management.  Intuitive recognition by executives that TQM by itself is insufficient has let to its recent declining popularity.  However, the answer is not to flit from step-to-step, but to recognize that an integrated approach, though very difficult, is essential.  No single step can serve as a silver bullet for very long.

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1999-2006, Arthur M. Schneiderman  All Rights Reserved

Last modified: August 13, 2006