Process Improvement

Comparison of several continuous process improvement techniques – Part 1 of a series

Continuous improvement is a philosophy by which organizations continually look for – and invest in – better ways to get their work done. This includes the evolution of their products and services, processes, procedures, workflows, and other aspects of day-to-day operations.

The objectives of continuous improvement include:

  • Improving productivity.
  • Removing waste or inefficiencies (such as time, raw materials, or labor).
  • Creating a better end product or service in a more efficient, more cost-effective way.
  • Removing waste from intangible aspects of business, such as fostering a more robust culture that leads to better collaboration, increased employee pride in their work, and higher staff retention.

In this article, we summarize three popular continuous improvement methodologies. Each has its advantages, and organizations need to consider which approach best meets their needs. For all approaches, it’s wise to keep in mind the common mistakes that can occur with adopting any continuous process improvement mindset.


Kaizen is a Japanese term meaning “change for the better” or “continuous improvement.” Beyond the literal translation, it embodies the Japanese philosophy guiding the continuous improvement model in the workplace. It comes from the idea that life should be continuously improved, leading to a more fulfilling and satisfying existence. The same applies to business. As long as you’re improving, your business can become more fulfilling, satisfying, and successful.

Kaizen supports change ideas coming from any employee at any time. Everyone has a stake in the company’s success, and everyone can continuously strive to help improve the business model. It underscores that small changes now can have big impacts in the future, and leads to three major outcomes:

  • Elimination of waste.
  • Good housekeeping.
  • Standardization.

Ideally these principles become ingrained in the company’s culture and become second nature for employees.

PDCA – Plan Do Check Act

PDCA (Plan Do Check Act) is an iterative form of problem-solving that improves processes and can be used to implement change. It’s just one of several approaches embraced by the Kaizen mindset.

With the PDCA approach, a problem is identified, and then the main steps are repeated until the desired result is reached:

  • Plan: Identify the problem to solve and create a plan to solve it. Propose and map out specific changes so that everyone on the team knows what to expect as they work on solving the problem.
  • Do: Implement the proposed solution on a small scale first, to test feasibility.
  • Check: Evaluate the results of the steps taken in the Do phase.
  • Act: Determine whether or not the solution had positive effects such that it could become standard company behavior. In many cases, further changes may be needed, and the team returns to the Plan step to begin the cycle again.

5 Whys Analysis

The 5 Whys approach is based on acquiring an in-depth understanding of what is actually happening where the work is being done – as opposed to managers brainstorming in a conference room. It’s most effective when answers come directly from stakeholders with hands-on experience in the problem or failure being examined.

Implementation is simple: when a problem is being examined, drill down to its root cause by thoughtfully asking “Why?” five times.

As opposed to seeing “solutions,” this approach looks for “counter-measures,” which are robust actions that prevent the issue from recurring. In contrast, a solution may just deal with symptoms and not causes.

A simple example:

  • Problem: I got a speeding ticket on my way to work.
  • Why was I speeding? I was late.
  • Why was I late? I overslept.
  • Why did I oversleep? My alarm didn’t go off.
  • Why didn’t my alarm go off? My phone battery died.
  • Why did the battery die? I forgot to charge it. 

So failure to remember to charge my phone was the root cause, and I can put in place a counter-measure to ensure that doesn’t happen again!

In future articles, we’ll cover other continuous improvement methodologies.

Process improvement is a way of life at Thurman Co.

In addition to an in-house culture that thrives on ownership and responsibility throughout our team, we help businesses manage projects to significantly impact their success and growth, and this often includes analyzing and improving processes.

When you’re ready to put your project in the hands of a trusted professional organization, contact us to learn more about working together.

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