When you open your daily copy of USA Today, Wall
Street Journal, or even your hometown newspaper, you'll probably see a
Pareto diagram, a line chart, or a histogram portraying data relevant to
your life. Statistical and problem-solving tools have become so pervasive
that we tend not to notice the impact that they have, but these tools
continue to support even the newest approaches to quality improvement. Six
Sigma, Baldrige, ISO standards, and others, build on proven methods of
quality management and improvement. Software and the Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle
are not 'old hat ' but are part of every quality approach.
Regardless of the framework within which an
improvement is made, certain steps are always taken. No one, for example,
would advise an organization to rush headlong into changing things without
ample study of the situation. Likewise, most improvement efforts are
grounded in data analysis, initiating change on a small basis before
broadcasting it, then looking for ways to continue the improvement. This is
of course, the Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle, popularized by statistician Walter
Shewhart and management consultant W. Edwards Deming.
Beyond this framework, there are a variety of
approaches. Baldrige Criteria, for example, outline areas of the
organization to be targeted, and criteria for improving organizational
performance practices. These criteria apply to leadership, strategic
planning, customers, etc. The Six Sigma approach, on the other hand, looks
at the end'higher profits, improved quality, etc.'and establishes steps
toward that end that will reduce variation in the process and improve
quality in the product.
In order to pursue the process of improvement, certain
tools are predictably required. Those involved must agree on the size and
scope of the project, and gather data on agreed-upon measures. Data
gathering and analysis, whether for Baldrige or Six Sigma objectives, must
be carried out in a systematic way that produces statistical integrity in
the data and confidence in the analysis. Check sheets, control charts and
their many variations, histograms, and Pareto analysis help in this process.
Operational definitions give clarity to what is being measured and studied,
and assures that this will have the same meaning to all those involved.
Gaining knowledge about the way that the current
system is performing is likewise integral to any improvement effort. Such
knowledge is demanded by ISO 9000 standards as well as other frameworks for
improvement. Stratifying data and using control charts are part of the
approach to understanding the system prior to developing a theory about how
to improve it, the stage at which affinity diagrams, cause-and-effect
diagrams, relations diagrams, and other tools help to develop creativity and
record relevant possibilities for improvement.
As theories for improvement are tested, another set of
tools is applied, including force field analysis, systematic diagrams, and
others; before a theory is set widely into place, results must be examined
to see if it has really worked'again, drawing from the panoply of tools
that are available. Flow charts, check sheets, affinity diagrams, and other
tools then help a team or organization to fully implement the change, and to
examine the process for future improvement possibilities.
Regardless of the language of improvement or the names
of tools, some of the 'same old ' approaches are proving themselves to be
sound, easy, and useful. Whether your improvement steps are arranged in a
broad Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle or are focused on idiosyncratic improvements
applicable only to your own industry standards, you will be hard pressed not
to recognize the pattern that assures your success, and to see the ways in
which it represents a far broader approach to improvement.
And even if you don't recognize a common pattern in
these approaches, you will undoubtedly find yourself using many of the same
tools toward the improvement that you want to see. Statistical and
problem-solving tools represent the hands-on construction, and their
appropriate use will ultimately bear much of the responsibility for actual
improvement in processes, products, and services in any organization.