Introduction To Continuous Improvement in Quality
Continuous improvement (also known as continual improvement) is at the core of quality management in any industry and relies on the process approach. There are teams other than quality management involved in continual improvement, their roles are not included in this discussion as they are often derivatives of the quality process.
Quality Assurance (QA) uses audits, training, and other techniques to ensure established processes are being followed. Quality Control (QC) uses inspections and measurement to monitor process outputs to make sure they meet specifications. Both QA and QC provide feedback for Continuous Improvement (CI) which takes the knowledge gained from QC and QA and turns it into lasting process improvement (Figure 1).
CI is a cycle where processes are analyzed and improved continuously. By continually improving the processes used to generate outputs, the production and business processes are streamlined, output reliability is improved, and business profits increase.
Figure 1 Conceptual Relationship Between Quality Assurance, Quality Control, Continual Improvement, and Processes.
In a business setting, almost all work has aspects that are repeated. Repeated work that uses similar steps each time it is undertaken is considered a process. When the process is written down, it is considered a procedure. In Figure 1, the process has a few steps that should be consistently followed and a decision that may add an additional step. If there is no process, it is not possible to perform QA, and work outputs that actually meet output requirements are based on luck. For example, when cutting a piece of wood the process is basically to measure the board, mark the cut, and saw through at the desired angle. Missing a step will typically result in a cut board with incorrect properties. Although the output of cutting a board is typically a structure involving many cut boards, when even one is incorrect it can cause issues with the finished structure.
Risk is a major factor in quality and in CI. If an incorrect work output generates minimal risk, it is likely to fall outside of the quality spectrum. Risk often includes analysis from the perspectives of cost; safety, health, and environment; quality, and corporate liability.
Quality Assurance Supports Continuous Improvement
When QA is performed, how closely the process is being followed is checked. Are the measures being performed correctly? Are the marks clear? Is the equipment appropriate? And many other checks are also being done, including a check to verify that the people involved in performing the work are qualified and have been trained in their roles. In our board-cutting example, issues in the process will likely not result in a board that is cut to the length and angle required. Identifying and correcting issues in the process supports CI.
Quality Control Supports Continuous Improvement
QC inspections and tests of work outputs involve having an expected outcome from a work process and verifying that it is met. Boards may have a requirement for straightness and acceptable size and number of knots in the wood. The board is expected to be of a specific length and have specific cut angles (all within a set tolerance). If any of these requirements are not met, QC would reject the cut board and the work would have to be redone. Reasons for the rejected board would be identified and reported to QA, which looks for trends and other recurring issues that could cause other rejected boards. QA then provides their findings to CI.
Quality Management Processes and Continuous Improvement
Quality uses specific procedures to resolve any identified process issues. Depending on the quality system being used, issues with work processes are typically recorded on a nonconformance report (NCR), preventive action request (PAR), opportunity for improvement (OFI), audit report, or other procedures. The processes generally involve an investigation to determine the root cause of the issue and a suggested remedy. After the remedy has been implemented, it is monitored for effectiveness. Each of these reporting procedures generates an output that is proven effective and valuable for CI.
The Continuous Improvement Process
CI looks at the process and:
- Determines if a procedure is required (if there isn’t one already),
- Either develops the procedure or updates the existing procedure based on the new knowledge,
- Develops/updates the training program to incorporate the new knowledge,
- Delivers any updated or new training (or works with the department’s trainer).
CI Procedure Risk Assessment
Determining if a procedure is required involves assessing risk. The CI team works with risk management to identify risks associated with the process. Writing a process down enables CI as there is a baseline to streamline, improve, and use for training and reference purposes. It also helps to identify any particularly high-risk steps in the process that should be focused on.
CI Procedure Development/Update
If there is significant risk, a procedure is developed in collaboration with the team(s) who use the process. If a procedure already exists, it is updated with the new knowledge. Both cases involve establishing a team to develop/review the procedure, circulating a draft, incorporating comments, and obtaining approval for the procedure from the procedure owner.
CI and Training
When a procedure has been developed or revised, the people affected by it must be trained in its use. In the case of a new procedure, a PowerPoint training session is often prepared and formally delivered to the team(s). When it is a relatively simple update, the team may get a quick introduction to the change from their supervisor at the start or end of a shift. The CI team should make the training delivery decision in conjunction with the process owner.
The short answer is never. As long as processes exist, they should be improved through streamlining (also known as ‘lean’) and improvement through knowledge gained. This supports the organizational goal of increased profit.
As per Figure 1, QA is focused on monitoring a work process while QC is focused on inspection and testing of the work process output. QC inspection and testing results are forwarded to QA for analysis and any actions required. The output from QA is forwarded to the knowledge management team (if there is one) or directly to the CI team.
CI is typically either a stand-alone team or it is part of the overall quality management team.
If there is a separate knowledge management team, it should be partnered with CI to add value to the process. If there is no knowledge management team, the CI team (or quality team) should begin lessons learned databasing activities.
Processes can be analyzed using risk management. When a risk is present, it should be assessed. A common way for risk management to address risk is to develop a procedure and provide those affected with training.
Continuous improvement is critical to any successful quality program. CI ensures that work is done as efficiently and effectively as possible and reduces all the costs and other problems associated with defective production. Processes are defined and become the basis for improvement. CI relies on quality processes to provide an understanding of where improvement is needed and to ensure that new and revised processes are properly implemented and operated. When issues are identified through quality activities, relevant work processes are updated to permanently resolve the issues. Working with risk management, CI ensures that processes and procedures are in place where they are needed.