Process Improvement Strategies

Over the past forty-plus years of my work career, I have practiced and used many different process improvement strategies. In fact, I have never worked for a company that did not have some form of formal process improvement system in place. I have been able to experience additional process improvement strategies during my 20+ years of service as an Examiner for the national Baldrige Performance Excellence Award process.

This page provides a summary of the various process improvement strategies I learned about and applied over the years. I think you can benefit from learning about, and experimenting with, all of them. I know that I learn something each time I use one of them.

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A Brief History of Process Improvement

In general, a push for better process quality began with Shewhart back in the 1920s. W. Edwards Deming picked up on his statistical process control work and taught it to the Japanese following World War II. At that time, few executives would listen to him in the United States,  The success of the Toyota Production System (real lean process improvement) in Japan inspired the Total Quality Movement in the United States in the early 1980s. TQM transitioned into re-engineering to lead off the 1990s. Six sigma process improvement systems were both in use and being refined by General Electric, Allied Signal, and Motorola. Prior to 2002 or so, six sigma process improvement certifications had yet to become mainstream. Mikel Harry, among others, helped change all of that.

At the start of the 21st century, consultants from the successful six sigma companies began to develop and sell ‘public’ six sigma certifications. Jack Welch at General Electric further fueled the use of ‘six sigma’ as an improvement strategy and process. At the same time, lean process improvement strategies were emerging as options for use. By 2010, use of the two process improvement strategies had morphed into lean six sigma, in most cases. I keep them separate here simply because one (six sigma) is really a measure of process quality. The other is a set of process improvement strategies.

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Team-Based Process Improvement Strategies

Work teams are at the heart of what we do here at Great Systems. I was raised on employee involvement, you might say. It was becoming a popular business improvement strategy when I entered the work world in 1981. During the next 15 years, participative management came to flourish in multiple forms, such as quality circles and self-directed work teams. Many organizations taught work team facilitation skills to their leaders, and group dynamics skills to all staff, in the 1990s.

I learned tons during this time, and I was able to set up and experiment with different team infrastructures. I was also fortunate to serve as a national leader for the Association for Quality and Participation during much of this time. This involvement connected me even more closely with best practice team-based process improvement strategies. All organizations need effective work teams to drive process excellence, improve through innovative projects, and support highly engaged, collaborative strategic support.

Six Sigma Process Improvement Strategies

I will never forget sitting at the table at an Association for Quality and Participation leadership meeting back in 2000 or so. The discussion centered around a rumor that consultants from within the Six Sigma Big Three – Allied Signal, Motorola, and General Electric – were going to take their proven certifications public. We were trying to decide if we should jump on the bandwagon or not. We didn’t, but that did not stop the Six Sigma wave at the start of the 21st century in the process improvement world.

Before then, six sigma was a measure of quality to me. I knew about the concept from my studies of Bob Galvin’s work at Motorola. Six sigma became more than a measure a variation after that. It became ‘3.4 defects per million opportunities.’ The six sigma process improvement strategy worked at the Big Three because it included a very supportive infrastructure – something quality circles did not have in the 1980s and 1990s. Their approach also required teams to use a structured approach to project selection. This is not what six sigma-based improvement has evolved into, but that is where the roots of today’s programs lie.

Lean Process Improvement Strategies

I was a lean thinker before I learned about the Toyota Production System. Learning about the work of Toyoda, Shingo, Ishikawa, and Ohno however only further stoked the process improvement fire that my industrial engineering degree had started inside of me. Industrial engineering, sound ergonomics, and human engineering are all a part of the lean process improvement strategy set. There are other great tools in the tool box as well.

More Process Improvement Strategies

If you would like more information about the process improvement strategies and tools I offer, please send me an e-mail at

Keep improving!

Kevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer, Great Systems

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