Glossary of techniques

Some of the main techniques are outlined on this page – more so you can spot the bluffers than to equip you to use the methods. The list is of course incomplete – any list is bound to omit someone’s favourite technique.

If you want to know more, visit the business section of any library, key the names into search engines, attend a few seminars, talk with someone who knows what they are talking about or even invest in training.


This is based on five Japanese words starting with the sound S. It has been paraphrased in English as 5Cs: Clean-up, Configure, Check, Conformity, and Custom. It has also been modified as CANDO, but whatever you call it, the technique is in essence ‘clearing the decks for action’, to prepare mindsets so that orderly, efficient working processes begin to become the accepted way things are done.

De-cluttering your life can feel really liberating and it’s good Feng Shui too!

For further reading, see Hiroyuki Hirano (Want to know more?)

Activity sampling

This is similar to a method for managing your own time, sometimes known as a time diary or time audit. It is simply a means of assessing the percentage of time spent on particular activities. The British Standards Institute defines it as a technique in which a large number of observations are made over a period of time of one group of machines, processes or workers. Each observation records what is happening at that instant and the percentage of observations recorded for a particular activity or delay is a measure of the percentage of time during which that activity or delay occurs.

Affinity analysis

Used to sort ideas into categories, to help sift them into a form that can actually be progressed, this is often the second stage after brainstorming. It appeals to the child in us when it involves sticking post-it pads on the wall (the stickers having previously had the ideas written on them).

Appreciative enquiry

Not specifically a quality technique, it concentrates on what is already working, encourages and appreciates contributions from everyone, and develops change strategies that keep the baby while throwing out the bathwater. It’s particularly effective if expertly facilitated and very powerful in overcoming cynicism and nurturing positive energy in groups. In summary, members of a group are asked to

  • Appreciate and value ‘what is’: for example, describe a time when they experienced the team as performing really well. What specifically was happening at that time? (They may need prompting to start and sometimes begin with very minor things, such as keeping them out of the rain, but often become animated and can end up with quite major aspects of their working lives.)
  • Imagine ‘what might be’: for example, describe what you would be seeing, hearing and feeling if you could change the way the team operates in any way you like, so that the team was always at that level
  • Discuss ‘what should be’: for example, explore options to ‘make it so’.
  • Decide and implement ‘what will be’: for example, commit to action.

For further reading, see Sue Annis Hammond (Want to know more?)

Balanced scorecard

This is a currently-popular way of measuring organisational success in the round. It is balanced in the sense that it measures more than just financial aspects. It is a way of turning strategic objectives into the performance measures that really matter. The idea is to take the

  • Corporate strategic direction
  • Those things vital to achieving that success (Critical Success Factors or Text Hoshins).

You then consider what success would therefore look like from a

  • Financial perspective (such as shareholders or market share)
  • Customer perspective
  • Internal perspective (such as employees, business processes, corporate innovation and learning)
  • External perspective (such as suppliers, society, ecology).

In the past, most people have taken those four perspectives, but some have adapted the idea to the results of the European Foundation for Quality Model (People, Customer, Society and Key Performance). Whatever the quadrant titles, they should be vital to the business objectives. The trick is that they should be both

  • Financial and non-financial
  • Internal and external
  • Tangible and intangible.


The continuous systematic search for and implementation of best practices which lead to superior performance.

The Benchmarking Centre

This is a method of comparing your own performance in specified processes with organisations which you perceive to do better than you at that particular process. There are several versions, including internal, competitive, process, strategic and, in the public sector, hybrid benchmarking (a cross between any of the above and service-level agreements). The method can lead to bigger advances than an incremental approach, but there is the risk that you will be advancing along an old path – imagine benchmarking to become a world-class canal-barge builder, when some bxxxer starts laying railway lines all over the show!

You may want to join a benchmarking club when you’re ready for it. That point is important – you need to prepare well beforehand by knowing specifically what processes you want to benchmark, collecting the pertinent data for comparison, understanding your processes well enough to explain them to an outsider, and get a feel for how you could adapt what they do to your own context. For further information, visit


A bit like stream of consciousness – people gather, fix their minds on a specific issue and throw ideas at the wall. This can work particularly well if participants write their ideas on post-it pads or the event is held electronically (either of these give some anonymity and reduce the bulldozer factor of the garrulous) – crucially, no evaluation of the ideas is allowed at that stage. The point of this is to allow free rein to the wacky that would never otherwise see the light of day, and might just hold the answer. Only once the weird and wonderful, the bizarre and the banal have all been gathered is there any evaluation. One way of doing this is to delay evaluation until after affinity analysis has sorted the raw ideas into heaps, each with some commonality. This delay further distances the evaluation from the outpouring – and increases the willingness of people to contribute ideas they fear are too off the wall. It’s fun, too, but some say that it produces results that are often worse than those of individuals working creatively alone.

For further reading, see Adrian Furnham, ‘The Brainstorming Myth’, Business Strategy Review Vol 11, no 4 Winter 2000, pp21-28.

Business process re-engineering

BPR is another much-maligned technique for improving processes. It fell from grace because it not only started, but in most cases finished, with the systems improvement. The procedure is basically to draw a flowchart of the process in question, identify and minimise or eliminate low-value tasks, bottlenecks and handovers from one person to another, and then rebuild the streamlined procedure.


This modification of 5S or 5C stands for

  • C – Cleanup – this might mean starting a clear desk policy in your office, removing unnecessary furniture and waste, disposing of old manuals and cleaning grubby areas. You use it/act on it, dump it, or as a last resort store it in limbo for a fixed probationary period. If it’s not used in that time, dump it.
  • A – Arrange things so the most used are nearest, which means a place for everything – good old-fashioned best workshop practice that works in the office too. It’s amazing the time you’ll save by having that (whatever it is) right to hand.
  • N – Neaten up so everything is in its place – again simple good habits that should be the responsibility of the user rather than the cleaner. Incidentally, have you ever asked your cleaners what really bugs them?
  • D – Discipline yourselves to keep the place like that all the time. The idea is that this is easier than stopping work for a major tidy-up every now and then. Think about facing a month’s ironing (assuming you have that many clothes) instead of a small pile.
  • O – Ongoing improvement – keep up the momentum, so that you address both the presenting problem and the underlying cause. If a fuse keeps blowing in your home, do you keep replacing it, or do you check out the equipment on that circuit? (If the former, you might like to think about changing your procedure!)

Cause & effect diagrams

See Fishbone.


Standing for Cause & Effect with Addition of Cards(!), this is a version of fishbone diagram to which you add cards, on some of which you write causal facts, while on cards of another colour you write ideas for potential solutions. Causes go on one side of the fish rib, solutions on the other.

Charts & graphs

The quality movement has borrowed a whole raft of tools from mathematics. In general, they are merely pictorial ways of recording data to make analysis easier. Examples include bar charts, histograms, scatter diagrams and tally charts.

Check sheets

You might know this as the ‘five-barred gate’. It’s just a grid showing the frequency of different events, types of error or whatever you want to analyse).

Control charts

Also known as Statistical Process Control, these record data about a process (it might be time taken, frequency of event, cost, whatever), collect it over time, put the occurrences on a graph, identify the average, the normal patterns of variation and any aberrations. This will give you the upper and lower limits of control. Investigate and resolve the causes, and keep repeating the process. Over time, the aberrations you address will get smaller as you reduce variation and increase consistency.

Deming cycle

Otherwise known as the Shewhart cycle, the Quality cycle, PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Act) or PDSA (Plan, Do, Study, Act), this is the foundation stone of all the techniques, no matter how sophisticated. That is because it is the scientific approach – spot the problem, think of solutions, try one, check for improvement, adjust what you do in the light of that check. Sticking to the method should reduce the likelihood of leaping to ‘solution mode’.

This is simple enough, but be sure to take some measures of performance both before and after, or at best you will only have a feel for whether the change made any difference.

The other thing is to change only one thing at a time – or you won’t know which change made the difference. Inevitably the basic tool has been developed and in some cases re-badged to suit particular needs. PDCA was developed into DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyse, Improve and Control) as part of the Six Sigma approach.


In this development of the Deming cycle, the letters stand for Define the problem; Review the current situation; Identify improvements; Verify they will work and pilot them; Execute the plan – then evaluate the result and so on.

Fishbone diagrams

These are so-called because of their distinctive shape. Draw a line with the obvious problem written in a box at one end. Then draw lines at 45 degrees to the ‘backbone’, for ribs, and label them with types of cause. Ribs can have any suitable label, but often have something to do with people, money, processes and product. You can have as many as you like, but keeping it simple avoids overlap and confusion. Then add any sub-causes imaginable to each rib. Highlight any cause that appears on more than one – it may be significant. Discuss each group of causes and circle any that appear crucial – then flip your thinking to come up with possible solutions. Here is an example:


The basic idea is that every decision or step in a process will be written in a box and joined to the next step by an arrow. Thus it is in essence a diagram showing the movement of ‘things being worked on’ through the process. Various conventional symbols are generally used to indicate decisions, processes, documents and so on. You can get an idea of the sort of thing from the symbols on the Autoshapes Flowcharting menu of many a word processing application.

Focus groups

Basically, these are facilitated meetings with a single clear purpose of resolving a specific problem, often involving customers and service users.

Force field analysis

This is a simple graphical way of assessing the strength of support and opposition to a proposed change. Draw a vertical line to represent the change, then arrows on the left-hand side, with their points touching the line. Label each one to represent a force for change, and make them different lengths to represent the strength of the force. Then do the same on the right-hand side, to represent the forces inhibiting change. A quick glance will then tell you a lot about both the probability of success and which influences to pay particular attention to.


You may know this as a distribution curve, a bell chart or even Napoleon’s hat! It’s like a bar chart, showing the frequency of an occurrence. A normal distribution looks like a bell (or the hat), hence the name.

Ishikawa diagrams

See Fishbone.


This is the registered name of the Kaizen Institute and is used to describe an approach rather than a technique, which is based on starting with the customer, continuous incremental improvement, questioning the rules, developing resourcefulness, getting to root causes, and eliminating or combining tasks. Main tools used within this approach are the Deming Cycle (PDCA), 5S (CANDO), Five Whys and elimination of waste (Muda).

For further reading, see Maasaki Imai (Want to know more?)

Kaizen blitz

In this short, sharp improvement exercise, a dedicated team tackles an issue full time for, say, a week, and ‘just does it’. There’s no seeking permission for the changes, no great analysis or reports or full costings, no search for perfection – just doing it better. Rumour has it that the effect can be a bit like crash diets – amazingly effective in the immediate term, but disappointing in the longer term. Careful choice of subject and of team seems important. Unless carefully prepared, blitzes can really T-off the people normally responsible for the functional area. Visit


Originally a Toyota term describing the Seven Wastes that occur in most manufacturing plants, this has now been adapted for use in service industries too. The basis of Just in Time (JIT) production, the seven wastes are: waste arising from excess transport, non-ergonomic motion, waiting around, over-production (and hence stockholding), inappropriate processing, re-working and defects.

Pareto analysis

Also known as the 80/20 rule, this is basically a means of prioritising your efforts: a simple way of noting down where you think most of your problems arise and spotting the critical few. That’s because (broadly) 80 per cent of the problems will come from 20 per cent of the processes, people or whatever. Record the types of error (or whatever) and put them into a bar chart, sorted in order of frequency. You’ll soon spot the occurrences that need most attention, or know where sorting them will make most difference.

PESTEL analysis

Formerly known as a PEST Analysis, this helps you take a structured look at the external influences on what you’re doing. The initials stand for Political, Environmental (meaning the environment or circumstances in which you are operating, although the writers always reckon it could just as usefully be Economic), Social, Technical (or technological), Ecological and Legal. The idea is that chunking the meaning of life down to those factors will make it easier to assess what their impact might be. It’s often useful to do this in tandem with a SWOT analysis.

Plan Do Check Act

(PDCA) – see the Deming cycle.

Process flowcharting

See Flowcharting.

Process mapping

See Flowcharting.


This is an acronym for a derivative of the Deming Cycle:

  • P – Problem definition
  • R – Root cause identification and analysis
  • O – Optimum solution identified, based on root cause(s)
  • F – Finalize how the corrective action will be implemented
  • I – Implement the change
  • T – Track the implementation and test the results.

Both the PDCA and the PROFIT models can be used both to solve problems and for continuous quality improvement.

Quality circles

Rather akin to focus groups, these are made up of volunteers from a work area, who meet regularly to identify, analyse and resolve work-related problems.

Scatter diagram

This can help you find patterns or relationships where none is obvious. It’s a chart again, with one variable shown up the side and the other horizontally. The closer the relationship, the more closely the data will follow a line or curve.

Service level agreements

Not always thought of as a quality technique, nonetheless a service level agreement puts the customer in the centre of the picture. Similar to a contract, it defines what the customer wants and the supplier can deliver in whatever terms are important in the context – quality, quantity, timescales and/or cost.

Seven basic tools of quality

They are the bar chart and other graphs, cause and effect diagram, check sheet, control chart, histogram, Pareto analysis and scatter diagram.

Shop floor experts

Also called Peer Mentors, Quality Champions or whatever name suits your environment, these are acknowledged and advertised as centres of expertise or advisers to their colleagues.

Statistical Process Control

SPC is one of pillars of the Deming’s philosophy. He considered that most quality issues arose from variation in materials, equipment and so on. In his view, statistics could be used to identify the cause of such variations and reduce their effect. Because of this, detailed record-keeping and data analysis is needed. In essence, you draw a chart showing the variations, plotted against upper and lower limits of acceptable variation. By addressing the causes of any variation that falls outside those limits, you can begin to eliminate the rogues and progressively reduce the gap between the upper and lower limits, thus bringing your process under control through statistics. See also Control charts.


This clarifies any clutter if you have, such as collected data from several sources. For example, it will be hard to tell what’s going on if you look at a diagram showing data from three shifts, production lines or branches. At simplest, stratification could be done by using different symbols for each source – perhaps triangles for the early shift, squares for the late shift and circles for the night shift.

SWOT analysis

SWOT is frequently done in tandem with a PESTEL analysis. Essentially, it involves drawing a vertical and a horizontal line across a (large?) sheet of paper to five four quadrants and labelling each one either Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities or Threats. You then get together with some colleagues and brain-dump the organisation’s situation onto the paper. You might like to draw extra lines on the sheet to make a space in which to record ideas for tackling the perceived weaknesses and seizing the opportunities. The important bit, of course, is what you actually do as a result.