Continuous Improvement Element of Quality

What is the role of Continuous Improvement in a Quality Management System?
What is continuous improvement? Textbook definitions will usually talk about it being a method to make incremental and breakthrough improvements in products, services or processes. One of the most commonly suggested methods to incorporate continuous improvement is to use the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle. This method has you perform multiple iterations of improvement; each time brainstorming and planning a change, testing the change and then seeing what improvements have occurred before full-scale implementation. So how do you put something like this into effect in the real world? Below is an example of a personal continuous improvement project I have worked on for years and how it correlates to continuous improvement at Excellerate.

A Place to Start
In my early days in college when I first started working at a bar, I had no experience. I was slow, I spent time searching for things, and if the drink had more than three ingredients, I usually needed some help.  Skip forward a few years and it was a different story. I had become a proficient bartender with the skills and ability to simultaneously make mixed drinks, frozen drinks, open wine bottles, pour tap beer and serve food. Did I ever become the best or fastest? No, but it paid for most of my college education. With people, we call this learning, and we’re all doing this every day.

What happens when you need to have an organization “learn”? This is where continuous improvement comes into play. Continuous improvement is a way to systematically achieve “learning” in an organization. But unlike individual learning, the overall goal of continuous improvement in an organization is to improve things such as processes, services or products.

The second restaurant I tended bar at had a pre-made margarita mix that we poured into a machine, providing an instant, delicious frozen drink. This led me to an appreciation for this delightful mixture of tequila, lime juice, orange liqueur and salt, so I started to develop my own formula for use at home. I tried different pre-made mixes, different tequilas and different types of orange liqueurs. As I gained experience, my combinations of ingredients became more complex, each time obtaining what I felt was a slight improvement on my formula. Eventually I came up with what I believe is the perfect mixture of nine ingredients for a world-class margarita. (Sorry, but I do not share the top-secret formula.)  It was something that took multiple years and many iterations of developing a new formula (Plan), making a new batch (Do), making my friends and myself taste test it (Check) and then serving the improved version at our next get-together (Act).  When life gives you limes… make margaritas!

Never Ending Cycle
Like traditional continuous improvement, things eventually have a point of diminishing returns. Do I continue to try new things when it comes to making world-class margaritas? Yes, I do. Some of them have proved to produce delicious results, like freezing the margarita mix to -4°F before combining it with ice in a blender. But there have also been experiments that did not work out as well. When applied to organizations, we also see that incremental improvements can tend to diminish for a given product, service or process. Sometimes an action tested will not produce any improvements but can actually make things worse. Does this mean we should stop trying to make improvements? Definitely not. But it does mean that we need to remember the level of improvement might not be as dramatic as the first continuous improvement effort we tried.

Also, the scale of the continuous improvement effort can influence the scale of the improvement achieved. If you have two people working to improve a costly process, your results will likely be much slower and less impactful than having a team of engineers and consultants renovate an entire factory. But at the same time, your proportional yield from the continuous improvement could be similar in savings per dollar invested.

At Excellerate, we invest a great deal of time and effort in continuous improvement; planning, making changes, and then checking to see if improvements are worthy of implementation at full scale. It’s how we’re able to continue to support our customers’ projects, reduce schedules and control budgets while improving quality and safety.

So, the next time life gives you limes, you know what to do… practice your continuous improvement skills!