Start with what’s manageable

Grand launches followed by large-scale improvement projects are fine if your organisation can cope with that. There’s something macho about doing it that way. On the other hand, there is a marked risk of losing momentum, corporate and personal enthusiasm and credibility if resources are spread too thinly. Think about Olympic athletes or F1 drivers: doing a warm-up lap first actually increases the chances of ending up ahead of the crowd.

Cutting your teeth on bite-sized chunks of work helps achieve those encouraging early results.

Starting small also gives you the chance to practice new management styles and process improvement techniques in a relatively safe way, so you are more expert as you move onto the hard stuff.

Check how well existing procedures work

If a procedure is already documented, make sure everyone follows it who should, including you, but keep an open mind as to whether there may be a better way of doing things. Document what works well. If you have a manual, get that amended accordingly. If an effective procedure is not documented, get it written down. On the other hand, if a procedure is ineffective, change it until it works, before you record it. Ensure staff know that they have permission and will be encouraged to step outside ‘the procedure’ if circumstance warrant it. If you already have a Quality Management System (QMS) that would frown on this, maybe you could suggest a procedure for stepping outside the procedure?


Customers don’t want to be told ‘this is our procedure’; they want a result.

Systems improvement is based on

  • Agreeing the purpose or desired result of the system (what it’s for)
  • Determining the constituent tasks
  • Identifying the wasted effort involved in
  • tasks which add little value
  • bottlenecks
  • downtimes
  • needless hand-overs from one person to another
  • reworking
  • checking
  • any other slack in the system
  • Deciding what change to make
  • Making the change
  • Checking the effect the change made.

A manager we know uses the following expression to her staff: ‘There is no such thing as a free moan.’ They can complain about how things are done, but only if they also come up with a suggestion on how to do it better. The result – less moaning and a lot more quality improvement!

Get expert (enough)

The theory of process improvement is simple. And you can make progress without sophisticated techniques. All you have to do is

  • Obsess about the needs of the customer/end user
  • Encourage collaborative working with
  • colleagues
  • customers
  • suppliers
  • Push to get to the root cause of any problems spotted
  • Seek to eliminate all forms of waste such as
  • time,
  • space,
  • effort
  • money
  • unnecessary transport
  • excess production and stockholding
  • over-processing
  • reworking
  • Gather evidence of the effects of any changes you make.

This is the Quality or Deming cycle – Plan what your going to change; Do it; Check that the change improved things; Act on that information (PDCA).

However, you’re likely to feel the need to know about some tools and techniques before long, whether to hold your own with professionals in the area or to apply the methods yourself. Some techniques are self-explanatory and suitable for DIY; some are more effective if facilitated, and for some you need significant training and guidance. There are scores of them, some being specifically designed for Quality Improvement, while others are adaptations of more general management techniques.

One thing to watch out for is that the same technique may have several names or acronyms, depending on who is using them (like 5S,5C or CANDO). So it is OK to ask ‘what’s that then?’

Whichever approach you take, there are certain golden rules for success.

Get some quick wins

You need to show people you are serious about quality improvement. You need to sow seeds of enthusiasm by showing that the concept works.

For example, a quick win might be to redesign your customer satisfaction forms (and the process by which feedback is elicited) to encourage uncomfortable answers. You then need to let people see the organisation acting constructively on those answers (fixing the problem rather than apportioning blame).

Make change easy to propose

If you fail to do this, people will either subvert the system or become less flexible. Inflexible Quality Management Systems breed a ‘jobs-worth’ mentality. If there isn’t an easy procedure for changing procedures, change it. If that is someone else’s responsibility, badger them (if you have to) to make it easier.

Don’t worry about getting it right first time

You may be put off the idea of experimenting because you have heard that quality mean you have to get things right first time. That would fly in the face of common sense. All you have to do is do your utmost to get it right before you go public. So you might want to:

  • Think through decisions more carefully
  • Do more market research
  • Test prototypes more thoroughly
  • Rehearse a new process more fully

before you go public.

Cooperate with other functional teams

Improving individual processes within a function will help people get used to the idea, but will only take you so far. At some stage, you will reach a point where processes cross boundaries.

Encourage projects that involve cross-functional working and internal customer chains. Use results-focused language – so those teams don’t just look at problems, they find solutions. When people identify their place in those chains, they begin to think differently about their work.

Key questions
  1. On whose work do you rely to do yours?
  2. Who relies on your work?
  3. How can you make each other’s work easier/more effective?

This begins to break down any ‘them and us’ attitudes, and fosters the cross-functional understanding and cooperation that is key to effective quality improvement. It can also minimise low-value work (if an activity has no eager customer, why is it being done?).