Process Improvement Strategies

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

Over the past thirty-seven years of my work career, I have had the opportunity to practice using 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 witness additional process improvement strategies in use as an eighteen year Examiner for the national Baldrige Performance Excellence Award process.

A Brief History of Process Improvement Strategies

This page summarizes the variety of process improvement strategies I have seen come into use since the early 1980s. I think you can benefit from learning about, and experimenting with, all of them. I know that I have gained something from exploring each of them.

In general, it all 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 (no executives would listen to him in the United States). The success of the Toyota Production System (real lean process improvement) begat the Total Quality Movement in the United States in the early 1980s. TQM transitioned into re-engineering to lead off the nineties. Six sigma improvements systems were being refined by General Electric, Allied Signal, and Motorola, but certifications had yet to become mainstream.

At the start of the 21st century, consultants from the successful six sigma companies drove the creation and offering of a public six sigma certification. 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 many 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.

Team-Based Process Improvement Strategies

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. I learned tons during this time, setting up and experimenting 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.

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 Big Six Sigma 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 that started the 21st century in the world of process improvement.

Before then, six sigma was a measure of quality to me. I had learned about the concept by studying 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 include 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.

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