With a variety of approaches to process improvement, including programs and regimens that have come and gone without a trace, a new generation of business owners, educators, and healthcare providers is ready to get to the heart of improvement and to understand the basics about quality of products and services. Unlike earlier generations, they do not have time to take extensive courses or attend multiple conferences in their quest for this understanding. So let’s boil down the essentials of quality improvement, beginning with the customer’s experience.
To serve customers well, the organization must understand the systems that are in place to fill these customers’ needs.
Customer needs can be satisfied when there are deliberate, purposeful systems in place to address these needs, defined in last month’s column and clarifying the difference between “needs” and “wants.”
Systems include activities that contribute to the achievement of a defined purpose. They are made up of processes that reflect what W. Edwards Deming called “constancy of purpose”—that is, processes that directly support the purpose of the system. They include “inputs” as well as “outputs,” the products or processes that serve customers’ needs.
Anton Chekhov, the Russian playwright, was known for insisting that everything in a drama must contribute to the outcome: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there” (from Gurlyand’s Reminiscences of A. P. Chekhov, in Teatr i iskusstvo, 1904, No. 28, 11 July, p. 521). In the same way, every system in an organization must support the mission.
Of course, this definition of “system” implies that the purpose of the system has been identified. It may be expressed in a mission statement, or it may be articulated as goals of the organization. In a school, for example, the mission might be to promote learning. Systems that support this mission would include the obvious ones of classroom instruction, the testing program, the counseling services, the curriculum; but the food service and maintenance systems also contribute to the mission. A system, defined by Deming, includes suppliers, inputs, processes, outputs, and customers.1 All of these must in some way contribute to promoting learning. It would make no sense to create a class schedule that revolves around the needs of the school’s business office rather than student needs, for example, or designing a curriculum that builds skills in only one area in order to conform to testing standards.
Improving only one area of a system may militate against overall improvement and fulfillment of an organization’s mission. A bank could have the best security system in the world, but if it means that customers cannot enter its buildings, the security process has undermined the larger purpose of serving customers.
1 Deming, W. Edwards, Out of the Crisis (Cambridge, MA: MIT Center for Advanced Engineering Study, 1982), p. 4.