In a walk down memory lane, David Schwinn re-visits the seven-step improvement process and shows its continuing relevance.
This month’s column comes from a question from Barb Cleary. She asked me where the seven steps in the Total Quality Transformation (TQT) improvement system came from. For those of you familiar with Six Sigma’s Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control (DMAIC) steps, the steps to which Barb refers are the seven steps of the System Improvement Model described in the TQT training system produced by PQ Systems. Those seven steps are:
- Define the system
- Assess the current situation
- Analyze causes
- Try out improvement theory
- Study the results
- Standardize improvement
- Plan continuous improvement
These expand each of the Plan-Do-Study-Act steps in the improvement cycle identified by Walter Shewhart and popularized by W. Edwards Deming.
The beginning of the story starts in 1981 when the American Society for Quality Control chartered the Quality Control Circles Technical Committee. The committee produced a handbook titled The Quality Circle Process: Elements for Success in 1982. Mike Cleary chaired the creation and publication of the handbook and I was a member of the committee. The committee described eight steps toward the creation of quality circles in an organization. The next iteration of those seven steps arose with the Transformation of American Industry (TAI) national community colleges training project in 1984.
The officially published materials for that project were created by Mike, my wife, Carole, and me in 1986 and used all across the United States, through the community college system and the local business and industry, focusing primarily on manufacturing. That approach described four steps:
- Data gathering
- Process control
- Process capability
- Process improvement
As the TAI movement’s work moved into other kinds of organizations beyond manufacturing, into community development, and into the need for other kinds of improvement approaches, Total Quality Transformation (TQT) was born in 1992. By that time, we had identified four distinct process approaches that we thought were necessary for making systems better. They are:
- System Improvement (our original approach and the one Barb asked about)
- System Alignment (an approach that focuses more on standardization than improvement)
- System Design ( an approach needed either when no system exists or the existing system is in such disarray that it needs to be recreated from scratch)
- Strategic Quality Planning (an organization-wide approach much akin to Hoshin Planning)
Each of these four approaches has its own set of steps, but to answer Barb’s question, I’ll describe where the seven System Improvement steps came from in a little more detail.
Once we realized the TAI training system was inadequate for helping improve the variety of systems we were being asked to help improve, Mike, Carole, and I asked a small group of experienced professionals to come together to create a new training system. As I remember, at that first several day meeting, we created the overall model which included three elements:
- The theory, called the Foundations of Quality
- The process that included process guides for each of the four approaches identified above
- The tools that were a set of statistical, problem-solving, and behavioral tools much like those used with Six Sigma
This small group, as I remember, including Susan Leddick, Elaine Torres, Craig Tickel, Carole, and myself, also created the seven steps during those first several days. We set down the TAI’s four steps alongside every problem solving, strategic planning, system standardization, and system design approach we could find in an attempt to synthesize an improvement process. We first came up with 13 steps. That was too many, we thought, especially given Dr. W. Edwards Deming’s focus on the Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) process of learning and improvement. We settled on seven steps first because we thought of the seven basic tools of quality and then because we remembered the relationship in the Judeo-Christian tradition of the number seven representing completion. That’s the answer to Barb’s question. Here’s the rest of the story.
I, immodestly, prefer the TQT seven step to Six Sigma’s DMAIC approach, but as someone not so invested in TQT, you may be interested in another perspective. I think the DMAIC process is perhaps as good, maybe even better than the TQT seven-step System Improvement approach, so you might as well stick with DMAIC if you are already using it. DMAIC was, however, designed to improve manufacturing processes. Although I know DMAIC has been applied well beyond that, the TQT system was designed to standardize, improve, or design or redesign any system. TQT has been used from projects as small as helping a stock broker improve his sales process to as large and complex as helping redesign a geographic community of 150,000 people.
I hope this column has not only answered Barb’s question, but given you an improved perspective on continual improvement. As always, I treasure your comments and questions.