How Many Process Improvement Tools Do You Use?

by Kevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer and Systems Guy, Great Systems

The percentage of people who have process improvement tool proficiency is a key process improvement driver in most organizations. In too many businesses however, too few people use a limited set of improvement tools to diagnose and fix problems. For reference, my observations place this percentage at only 15-20% of the average site’s workforce. What percentage of your work team leaders and members effectively use process improvement tools?

Tool use is rarely taught in formal education settings, so how do we expand our group of competent problem solvers? We try to teach tool use via video and classroom instruction, but the amount of practice time we can afford to include is too little for skill proficiency development. We actually have two problems. First, we don’t teach enough people. Second, we don’t teach the tools in a manner that leads to effective skill retention and application.

Even when we do offer formal tool training, we spend too much of that limited time in attempts to cover a multitude of process improvement tools. Most of these tools, most of us will rarely use. How many process improvement tools do you regularly use? How many process improvement tools do you NEED to be able to effectively use?

EXPLORE MORE: How to Measure and Improve Your Process Improvement Work System

What Quality Techniques Do the Top United States Plants Favor?

In the 2019 IndustryWeek Best Plants Statistical Profile, 69 plant respondents were asked to indicate which quality techniques they used extensively. The results are shown in the feature graphic for this post. The seven basic quality tools are integral to most of the techniques on the list, such as problem solving teams, Six sigma, mistake proofing (poka-yoke), PDCA, and SPC use. If you struggle to use a quality tool, or set of tools, then technique use will suffer as well.

The 2019 Best Plants list mirrors my own experience relative to quality tool and technique use. I use the techniques at the top of the list the most, and in some cases, each day. At the bottom of the list, you will find quality techniques that I can describe how to use, but rarely use myself, such as Design of Experiments and Quality Function Deployment. These latter tools are great tools, but they offer more of a ‘special purpose use’ potential.

My process improvement skill development path is one that contains much more practice and application then it does formal instruction. Those tools that I have only read about, or seen others use, are also those tools that I can teach to others, but still struggle to use well. To gain true tool proficiency, you have to practice tool use over time, on processes you know well.

LEARN MORE: How to Measure and Improve Your Strategic Planning Work System

What’s Your Favorite Process Improvement Tool?

My observations tell me that most people (over 50%) rely on brainstorming (list creation, actually), line charts, and pie charts as their primary problem solving tools. Watch your teams in action. What problem solving tools do you see them frequently use?

Many teams these days simply make lists and select something to change, often via popular vote. What’s your daily work experience? Process improvement teams do still exist that use a complement of tools to solve process problems. They are just more difficult to find these days.

Another 21st century problem analysis norm relates to our reliance on software to generate charts and highlight trends. It can be difficult these days to find people that can even create their own graphs in an app. It is even more rare to find people who can read charts, interpret data, and postulate theories effectively. Have you seen erosion in your team’s data analysis skills?

How do you know when it is the right time to use a certain process improvement tool? How do you analyze and use the information each tool provides to drive process change?

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How Many Process Improvement Tools Do We Need?

Think about it. How many process improvement tools does one really need to learn in order to effectively use DMAIC to make process improvements?  I have seen six sigma course curriculums that cover more than 30 different tools in one week’s time.  That is a rate of almost one tool per hour.  At best, the course attendee might get to practice the use of each tool one time for 15 minutes. They can explain the need for tool use, but they struggle to describe how to use the tool. Why spend time to learn about tools we will rarely use?

The tool practice we do provide often uses example applications that may, or may not, relate to the types of processes people will attempt to improve after class.  In a similar vein, I have seen 70% of a 40-hour course be spent on statistical concepts that most people struggle to understand, let alone apply. When we fail to understand the value and use of a tool, we will struggle to gain tool proficiency. We only magnify this challenge when we try to retain, and attempt to use, that knowledge more than once or twice a year.

Don’t get me wrong.  I recognize that there is a small subset of process and problem types where ANOVA analysis, two-tail tests, and design of experiments approaches are applicable and necessary.  My real-life work experiences, however, show me that in a large majority of applications, we rarely have enough raw data integrity to use these process improvement tools. Such use, of course, also depends on IF we remember how to use the tools in the first place.

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Focus on the Basic Process Improvement Tools First

The typical project leader rarely comes across an application that requires the use of such high-level tools. If they do, their challenge will be to obtain enough high-quality data to make the use of these tools statistically meaningful.  Worse yet, in those cases where I had quality data and was able to use these tools, my managers felt my goal was to show them up. They did not understand the process improvement tools themselves. Regular tool use was not a common practice.

But I digress – we still need to answer the primary question.  How many process improvement tools does one really need to learn to use in order to effectively make process improvements?  I would suggest that one start with the basics – the seven original quality tools.

Start with check sheets, line charts, histograms, and control charts to help understand the process and the problem. Next, use Pareto charts, scatter diagrams, and root cause analysis to help find problem and high leverage change areas. Finally, use these basic charts to monitor process trends over time and gain insight into variation levels. Practice the use of each tool over time. See what you learn. Most of all, continue to improve how you use each tool.

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The Need for Effective Process Improvement Tool Use

So many of our problems would not continue to come back – they would disappear for good- if more people would consistently make use of these basic quality tools at work each day. Don’t mistakenly assume that there is a host of people out there with black and green belt certificates who can effectively use the seven basic quality tools. Take a quick look at the types of tool use you see in your organization.  I will almost bet that most people don’t use these tools that often.

You will find people who can’t tell you when they should change the limits on their control charts. You will come across others who rarely take the bones on their fishbone diagram out to two levels, let alone five levels via the use of effective ‘5 Why’ questions like Ishikawa would teach. Even fewer can explain the basic regression or variation concepts behind a scatter diagram or control chart. Without such foundational knowledge, it is tough to grasp ‘second tier’ quality tool applications such as quality function deployment or design of experiments.

We need more people to become proficient at process improvement tool use. Otherwise, our rate of improvement will simply be too slow to stay competitive. Management by fact is also a much more effective strategy than management by opinion, but we have to make effective use of our data. Finally, process improvement tool use helps us understand and anticipate future system performance, so we are less likely to be blindsided by future change.

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Focus on Process Improvement Tool Proficiency

The person who tries to use too many process improvement tools is analogous to the golfer who carries 14 or more clubs in their bag. In reality, most golfers rarely learn to hit more than three or four of their clubs very well (my count includes the putter).

They may be able to hit the ball with each of the nine different irons and the three different woods, but often does the ball go where they want it to go? How effective is their short game, where pitching wedge and putter skills are key? How often do most golfers use the wrong club in the wrong situation or fail to swing the club correctly?

Most golfers never really learn to use each club effectively when the right situation presents itself.  If you can relate to this story, you are also probably familiar with the poor results such an approach gives you.  The only difference here is that poor club use results in balls in the pond. Ineffective process improvement tool use results in process waste and customer dissatisfaction.

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Find Your Process Improvement Tool Focus

How many people do you know who can use a Gantt chart to create a project plan?  Too many people struggle to describe where to use a given tool in the problem solving process.  How many people are able to demonstrate consistent personal process improvement tool use more than five times over the past two or three years? What tools do we really need to learn to use well?

This situation only becomes more problematic when we cram a multitude of other tools into a 40-hour (or more) workshop.  From my perspective, it approaches the point of true ridiculousness, and I want to be very politically correct when I make that statement. Who needs to learn what set of process improvement tools to help sustain continuous improvement across an organization?

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The Best Way to Learn to Use Process Improvement Tools

The counterargument to my complaints above makes sense, but rarely occurs.  This argument is simple. The purpose of the six sigma green or black certification project, or projects, is to demonstrate proficiency in the use of process improvement tools.

That is a great argument. It only holds water if a skilled coach monitors process improvement tool use AND that coach gives meaningful feedback as the user practices the tool.  All too often, project completion becomes more of a formality than a practice field. In turn, little helpful feedback is given, and the black or green belt rarely moves closer to tool proficiency.

The solution to this particular problem is simple. Only teach the process improvement tools that are most applicable for the processes you want to improve. Allow for at least two hours of in-class practice time, on workplace examples, for each tool.  I realize that if you commit to this approach you won’t have time to cover all of the fancy tools that are found in many process improvement curriculums.

At the same time, you might end up with some project and work team leaders who can actually use these tools to make their changes last.  Your work team leaders might actually make their most persistent process problems go away for good. It’s your choice. How many process improvement tools do you really need to be proficient at?

EXPLORE MORE: Measuring Process Improvement Effectiveness

Would You Like to Improve Your Process Improvement Work System?

If you would like more information about the improvement tools and work system best practices I have to offer, please send me an e-mail at

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Keep improving! – Kevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer and Systems Guy, Great Systems

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