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Overview of Leading Continuous Process Improvement Tools

Updated on July 30, 2012

What is Continuous Improvement Process?

Continuous improvement process refers to the concept of having an ongoing effort to improve products, services or processes. To be successful, organizations need to employ continuous improvement methods in today's ever changing business environment. There are four commonly used tools for continuous improvements:

  • The PDSA cycle
  • Six Sigma
  • Lean
  • TQM


The PDSA Cycle

The Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycle, also known as the Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) cycle, Learning and Improvement cycle, Deming cycle or Shewhart cycle is a four-step problem-solving process. This method is a very powerful quality control tool that allows for continuous improvement of business processes in an ever changing environment. The use of this cycle permits organizations to anticipate the needs of customers, to create routines that transform those needs into products or services, to solve problems that emerged and to incorporate new information to existing products or services. The cycle should be utilized in an ongoing manner.

During the ‘Plan’ phase of the PDSA cycle, you recognize a problem or area for improvement and plan a change to the current process. To do this, you must establish the objectives and processes necessary in order to deliver your expected results. During the ‘Do’ phase, you implement the change and carry out a small-scale study to test possible effects. During the ‘Study’ or ‘Check’ phase, you review the test, analyze the results and identify what you’ve learned. This involves comparing the results from the ‘Do’ phase with the expected results established in the ‘Plan’ phase. During the ‘Act’ phase, you analyze the differences between the ‘Study’ / ‘Check’ phase and determine their cause. If the change did not include improvement, go through the cycle again with a different plan. If you were successful, incorporate what you learned from the test into wider changes. Use what you learned to plan new improvements, beginning the cycle again.


Six Sigma

Six Sigma is essentially a data-driven way of quality improvement that promotes defect prevention rather than defect detection. This tool can be used anywhere variation and waste exist, and each employee needs be involved in the Six Sigma effort for it to be successful. Six Sigma projects follow a methodology inspired by the PDSA cycle mentioned above but Six Sigma calls it ‘define, measure, analyze, improve, control’ (DMAIC). The iterative principle of PDSA is not part of the DMAIC procedure and must be consciously added.

There are four different Six Sigma belts that a person can earn - yellow, green, black and master black. The most simple of all four belts is the yellow belt and it's the least popular one. Next comes the green belt - people with this certification are usually the ones involved in all the data gathering for a Six Sigma project. People who have a black belt Six Sigma certification are usually the ones who are in charge of Six Sigma efforts within departments or companies. A person with a master black belt certification is one that is highly skilled in Six Sigma and typically works on Six Sigma efforts full time, ensuring that there is continuous improvement of implemented Six Sigma projects.


The basic principle of lean is to eliminate all activities that don't add value and contribute waste to the business. There are seven commonly accepted wastes within a supply chain:

  1. Overproduction
  2. Waiting
  3. Transportation
  4. Inappropriate processing
  5. Unnecessary inventory
  6. Unnecessary motion
  7. Defects

Ideally, companies should apply the lean concept to the entire supply chain.


Total Quality Management (TQM) is a management tool with the end goal of customer satisfaction. TQM strives for excellence in all parts of the company, down to the final product for the customer. First of all, it's necessary to understand customers' needs. Next there need to be processes in place that continuously collect, analyze, and act on customer information. And involves the employees in continually improving all aspects of the company.


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    • SidKemp profile image

      Sid Kemp 5 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

      Thank you for this excellent article on these four continuous improvement tools. I've linked to it from two of my own hubs: and I hope you will read them and return the link-favor if you like what you seen.

    • profile image

      chrisinhawaii 5 years ago

      Sounds like Kaizen to me =)

      I'm not a manager or executive, just a writer. Any thoughts on how a freelance writer might apply, say...LEAN to the process of writing articles for online publishing? While reading it occurred to me that ineffective time management and work flow would have the same effect on a writer's productivity as "waste" in a massive corporation.

      Well-written and informative. Thank you, Chica! Voted up and useful. Aloha!

    • Michael VO profile image

      Michael VO 5 years ago from Warrenton Missouri

      A am a fan of any improvement method that can deliver results. Obviously, Lean and Six Sigma are the most visible players. As a Theory of Constraints person I am always looking to further my discipline. My point is this; improvements that are not at the constraint do not pay off in total system performance. In large organizations the silos make it easy to report savings in one area where some other area is impacted negatively.

    • Global-Chica profile image

      Anna 6 years ago from New York, NY

      Thanks so much, CloudExplorer! I also previously worked on Six Sigma programs back when I was a Consultant and then studied them again when I was doing my Masters so I decided to write a hub outlining these useful tools. Thanks for reading and your awesome comments! :)

    • CloudExplorer profile image

      Mike Pugh 6 years ago from New York City

      Awesome hub here, I actually have earned my yellow belt while I was in the Navy, for the Lean Six Sigma program.

      They adopted the program for my Naval Command I was working at years back, and I learned a great deal about the bottle neck effect, and how to stream line actual work items or certain work tasking & functions to generate a more effective quality of work; thus improving overall productivity and efficiency of any given system.

      I must say that your hub is definitely informative on such subjects and highly accurate in every way, I will share it and use such a reference when I'm trying to guide others into such relevant, info for sure.

      Thanks for sharing such useful and encouraging info, I hadn't known about the PDSA info though, so I will do some research up on the subject for sure. Awesome job! @ Global-Chica