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Continuous Improvement

Continuous improvement is not a tool or technique as such; more a way of life or at least a cultural approach to quality improvement and the concept of continuous improvement has to be set in the context of the quality "movement".

Quality as a business issue in the way we know it now arose with labour specialisation, mass production and automation techniques; techniques which moved away from the traditional expert craftsman approach to quality.

In the new world of factories and mass production, quality was obtained by inspecting each part and passing only those that met specifications. This was true until 1931 when Walter A. Shewhart, a statistician at the Hawthorne plant at Western Electric published his book Economic Control of Quality of Manufactured Product (Van Nostrand, 1931). This book is the foundation of modern statistical process control (SPC) and provides the basis for the philosophy of total quality management or continuous process improvement for improving processes.

With statistical process control, quality inspection of each individual part produced is no longer used; the process is monitored through sampling. Depending on the results from the sample, adjustments are made to the process to ensure quality production.

W. Edwards Deming worked as Walter Shewhart's assistant and protégé and helped further develop this radical approach to improving quality. At about the same time, Shewhart also developed a never-ending approach toward process improvement called the Shewhart Cycle (also known in Japan as the Deming cycle) : Plan-Do-Check-Act.

This approach emphasizes the continuing, never-ending nature of process improvement.

The cycle is really a simple feedback loop system.

Plan

A plan is developed to improve a process.

Do

The plan is tested in a small field test.

Check

The results of the test are assessed.

Act

If successful, the plan is implemented.

The improvement process then begins again and the cycle is repeated. The repetition of the PDCA cycle, with each cycle producing improvement, leads us to the term 'continuous improvement'.

See also Kaizen

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