Evolving Process Excellence (Part 1): Defining quality, continuous improvement and transformation

Formal approaches to quality and continuous improvement grew up last century, with the growth of statistically-based tools like Six Sigma and management philosophies like Lean - among many others. These tools, in different ways, ultimately seek to help organizations improve quality, reduce costs and become more efficient.

But many companies talk about quality, continuous improvement and transformation but appear to use the concepts to fit a variety of different purposes. So what do these words really mean?

In the first of a 7 part series on PEXNetwork.com on next generation process excellence, senior process practitioners explain what they see as the difference between quality, continuous improvement and business transformation.

The following is an excerpt from a roundtable discussion recorded last year. For a full transcript of this discussion, you can download the free whitepaper: Quality and Continuous Improvement in an Age of Transformation.

Are quality and continuous improvement sets of tools? mindsets? or something else? And where does transformation fit it?

Please note: the following transcript has been edited for readability.

Question: How would you define quality, continuous improvement and transformation?

Vince Pierce, Senior Vice President Global Business Transformation, Office Depot:

"I define the concepts of quality, continuous improvement, and transformation very differently. I’ll start with continuous improvement: it is incremental in nature - it’s not breakthrough - and it should be pervasive in nature. I tend to think of local, autonomous improvement, where every process gets improved every day, very, very tactically. These are small improvements, small barriers, small countermeasures that, over time, accumulate and make a heck of a difference to an organization. Continuous improvement is a mindset. It’s more of a verb. It is an activity that happens pervasively in the business everywhere we go.

This is in contrast to transformation, which is breakthrough in nature. Although I believe you can apply transformation at multiple levels to an enterprise, a division of a business or even a process, for me, transformation always has some element of strategy, people, process and technology.

My definition of quality is very focused on the quality aspects of a product or service, whether it be accuracy or quality of craftsmanship. I tend to think of quality as how well do we do it? Or how well do we make something?"

Estelle Clark, Business Assurance Director at Lloyd’s Register:

"For me, quality is about something that’s organization-wide; it’s an organization-wide approach to understanding precisely what your customers need and then being able to regularly – that’s consistently – deliver those solutions within budget, on time and, increasingly in today’s world, I think, that quality also needs to encompass "minimum loss to society". There’s a sustainability obligation there also, in relation to quality.

I agree with what Vince has said in relation to transformation and continuous improvement. But one more thought from me on continuous improvement: I think that continuous improvement is largely about culture. It’s about making sure that everyone in the organization understands that they have the ability and an obligation to look for changes and things that may improve things day by day. This is incremental, for sure. But the person closest to the work needs to understand that this responsibility [for continuous improvement] is a key part of their job."

Gregory North, Vice President Lean Six Sigma, Xerox:

"I’m responsible and have the privilege of working within the Xerox Corporation, globally. To really help define what we need for competencies in our corporation to drive quality and continuous improvement and then enable those competencies at all levels across all our businesses. It’s an exciting place to be, Xerox is in the process of a very public transformation; moving from a strong, innovative technology leader, to one that is a services-led technology-driven business.

That means our very business model and our offering is in transformation and as a result everything we do in the corporation, from a whole-scale change in our offering to a change in the way we think about delivering that offering is, in a sense, up for grabs.

It’s a sweet spot for the area of thinking about our business from a quality and continuous improvement standpoint, in that, really, process is at the center of what we’re doing. Our work here at Xerox is designed to help our leadership team and our employees across the corporation make that journey successfully."

For a full transcript of this discussion, you can download the free whitepaper: Quality and Continuous Improvement in an Age of Transformation

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