Are Different Process Improvement Techniques just a Fad?

The drive toward process improvement has become a way of life in corporations today. Companies’ have continued the pursuit to attain capabilities equivalent to Toyota’s manufacturing capability, world-class six-sigma quality programs, and streamlined supply chain operations. However, despite their unrelenting efforts, few companies have managed to implement programs that actually produce significant results. Companies have used process improvement methods, like Total Quality Management (TQM), but abandoned those methods as newer innovations, such as re-engineering, became introduced. Further analysis of “newer innovations” reveals that they’re nothing more than old ideas with fancier titles. For example, the core disciplines associated with statistical process control and variance reduction became Six-Sigma.

An article written by Nelson P. Repennin and John D. Sterman titled, “Nobody Ever Gets Credit for Fixing Problems that Never Happened: Creating and Sustaining Process Improvement” argues that companies that make a serious commitment to the disciplines and methods of process improvement outperform their competitors. Although these techniques get rebranded with a new name, they aren’t just the “flavor of the month,” but have tremendously useful content. Repennin and Sterman’s research strongly suggests that the inability of most organizations to reap the full benefit of process improvement innovations has little to do with the specific improvement tool they select. Instead, the problem has its roots in how the introduction of a new improvement program interacts with the physical, economic, social, and psychological structures in which the implementation takes place.

I strongly concur with the research findings and agree that the ability to identify and learn about new improvement methods no longer presents itself as a significant barrier. The biggest challenge becomes successfully implementing the new innovations. After all, “you can’t buy a turnkey six-sigma quality program. It must be developed from within.”

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