Just like with project management methodologies, process improvement methodologies vary slightly in their approach to identifying, analyzing and implementing changes.
Some common process improvement methods include:
The PDCA cycle is a component of many continuous improvement methodologies. Its steps include:
- Plan. Spot room for improvement, and develop a plan for change.
- Do. Implement the change on a small scale as a test.
- Check. Look at the results of the change and determine its efficacy.
- Act. Take action depending on the results you observed—implement the change broadly or revisit the cycle to spot more room for improvement.
This cycle is also sometimes referred to as PDSA—Plan, Do, Study, Act—or the Deming Cycle, after W. Edwards Deming, who developed it in the 1950s.
Just like the Lean and Agile project management methodologies that usually complement it, PDCA and continuous improvement process methodologies are iterative approaches to learning, development and improvement.
Kaizen is a process improvement methodology focused on continuous improvement that involves the entire company in a bottom-up strategy.
The core aim of Kaizen is to create a company culture that encourages employees at all levels to spot, suggest and implement process improvements. It pays particular attention to involving plant floor employees—in manufacturing facilities—in process improvement.
In practice, the methodology is centered on so-called Kaizen events—ie, the action steps for process improvement. Kaizen events involve employees at all levels of the organization and include:
- Setting and stating business or project goals
- Reviewing the current process to spot room for improvement
- Implementing necessary changes
- Reviewing the changes, and fix as necessary
- Documenting and reporting results
Total Quality Management (TQM) is a similar system to Kaizen in that it aims to involve the whole company in process improvement.
It takes a stronger focus on customer satisfaction than Kaizen, considering internal or external customer satisfaction the measure of success in the system.
An analysis of TQM and Kaizen by researchers at the University of Engineering and Technology in Lahore, Pakistan, notes that, while Kaizen is a bottom-up approach, TQM uses both a top-down and bottom-up approach. That means management and leadership are encouraged to spot and implement improvements as much as employees are.
Like Kaizen, TQM implementation follows the PDCA cycle. The TQM philosophy relies on a set of principles that include:
- Leadership commitment
- Employee engagement
- Fact-based decision-making
- Continual improvement
- Customer focus
Theory of Constraints
Introduced by Israeli business management expert Eliyahu M. Goldratt in 1984, the theory of constraints is based on a belief that a process will always include at least one constraint that hinders efficiency and business goals—eg, limits production.
Constraints are often equipment, policies or people (including the number of people and their mindsets or skill sets) that limit a system from producing more than it is. In other words, a constraint is a bottleneck in the process.
The goal of this methodology is to identify those constraints and discover how to open up the bottleneck by breaking the constraint or adding buffers to keep it from limiting the entire system.
Implementing the theory of constraints follows these five steps:
- Identify a process’s constraint(s)
- Exploit the constraint—examine it to determine how to use it to its full capacity
- Subordinate to the constraint, or set up everything else in the system to support the best possible performance from the constraint
- Elevate the constraint by adding resources or adjusting processes to open up the bottleneck
- Repeat the process
Remember, the theory of constraints assumes there’s always at least one constraint on a process. That doesn’t mean the process is broken. Instead, it means you can always find ways to improve it to increase its efficiency and productivity. This requires constantly identifying and opening up constraints.