Continuous Quality Improvement (or CQI) is a strategic approach to driving a cost competitive method for meeting or exceeding customer expectations. Regardless of customer needs, competition, or business challenges, a well-executed CQI program can ensure the success of any organization. A simple yet common method for driving process improvement is Plan>Do>Check>Act, which is a cyclical approach to reviewing processes and continually improving them. Plan improvements, implement changes, monitor progress, assess, reflect and repeat. The beauty of PDCI is it can be applied again and again to the same process to drive continuous improvement, even in light of business changes or staff turnover.
Define your processes--what sequence of steps takes you from request to output? If your processes are not documented, document them. Seeing your process on paper is a powerful way to see what is going on, and often the problems bubble right up to the surface. Next, identify the problem or improvement opportunity in the process (if there are more than one, pick the one to address first). Bring the right people in the room to brainstorm possible causes for the problem and determine which is the likely root cause (or biggest, if more than one are contributors to the problem). Then brainstorm on potential workable solutions. Finally, outline the action plan and targets for improvement.
You have an action plan with targets for improving the process. Now you execute that action plan. Check your progress against the action plan. Strong action plans list owners, tasks, target dates, and measurements of success or milestones. As the action plan is being executed, compare progress to what was initially set. Sometimes milestones are added or changed if the execution reveals new information or circumstances. When this happens, update the action plan and monitor accordingly.
Once the actions have been implemented, it is time to determine if the improvement actions were successful. Before you can do this, you must define how the process performance is measured. The Check step requires that a way of measuring process performance is established, and that the measurement(s) is valid and repeatable. This frequently requires the use of common business graphs, such as Pareto and Run charts, as an example. Compare the data from the process before the changes to data from the process as it is currently performing. Has the process improved? Is the improvement at the level initially targeted during the Plan phase? Has the change revealed or created any new or unintended impact?
The Check step provided data and possible lessons learned. Now is a good time to evaluate whether the initial improvement enabled the process to perform at the required level or if more is needed. If more than one improvement was identified in the Plan step, now is the time to determine if a new action plan is warranted. If not, standardize the improvements as the new process. And don't forget to celebrate your success!
Plan>Do>Check>Act (or a variation) is the most widely used basic model for Continuous Quality Improvement. Each step can be enhanced with process charts, data charts, and team brainstorming. Following this simple model will get any CQI program up and running.
Robin Tyndall is a freelance writer in Sugar Grove, N.C. Her current occupation is research compliance, interpreting regulatory guidelines for various types of academic research. She also has years of international business and management experience. Her rediscovered passion is writing young adult fiction--one short story was recently published.