All Quality Programs Fail

When continuous improvement breaks down

David Iwinski Jr.

Managing Director



Thomas Watson

Director, Senior Consultant

Blue Water Growth

US Mobile: +1 412-398-4639

​Skype: thomas.watson-bluewatergrowth

All Quality Programs Fail

When continuous improvement breaks down

By Thomas Watson

It sounds a little defeatist, but the corollary is true also - all quality and continuous improvement programs succeed (rather, they all have the potential to do so). The extensive packaging of quality or continuous improvement programs is ubiquitous, and many carry almost cult-like followings. But if you break down the basic philosophies of the most famous gurus, similarities are more prevalent than differences.

How can you tell when your system is failing?

Too many charts or KPI’s.  I went through a period where if one chart was good, ten charts must be better. Make only the measurements important to the people working in the area visible and eliminate the rest, then dwell on the vital few in each area.

Charts or tables that say everything is perfect.  They have no value to prompt action, only act as a distraction, and are often untrue.  Great for an audit if that is your goal!

Management is copping out. Any quality or continuous improvement is being outsourced to the Quality Department or the Six Sigma Black Belt so everyone else can get on with their work.

Resources devoted are disproportionate to the opportunity or inconsistent with strategy.  It is true that standing still is going backward in this competitive world, but running in the wrong direction with your best talent is far worse.

Purist view of any philosophy taken to an extreme.  Single-piece flow and complete aversion to MRP systems are examples that I have seen implemented, with terrible consequences in the wrong environment.


Simple tools are ignored.  Creating standard procedures, organizing workstations, reducing set up times and guarding against inadvertent mistakes: these all require minimal training and can make huge differences.

Some basic tools of the trade

  • Shewart Cycle: Plan, Do, Check, and Act.

  • Fishbone Diagram: Separate the cause and effect by man, material, methods, and equipment.

  • Control Charts (SPC): Identify natural versus unnatural variation, and use statistical methods to identify when to act without overadjustment.

  • Value Stream Mapping: Follow the product and identify steps that don’t add value

  • A3: Describe your problem on one sheet of paper.

  • Kaizen: A focused effort using a multidisciplinary team to meet a specific improvement goal.

  • 5S (or 6S): Everything required is readily available and in its place.

  • Design for Manufacturability: design with ease of manufacturing and quality in mind.

  • DMAIC: Define Measure Analyze Improve Control, a data-driven quality strategy. 

Keep in mind that it is not important to find the absolute best and most optimal tool for your organization, but to find a tool that can effectively solve your most important problems. 

What should you be doing as the leader?

Do something!  Step back and take a critical review of your Quality/Continuous Improvement Process.  Use an objective third party. Is your organization’s process still effective? Pick a process that fits your culture, that can be championed by key leaders, and then stick with it.


Ask workers and front-line managers in different areas of your organization to describe your company’s quality continuous improvement methods. Could they respond easily and are their answers consistent at each level in your organization?  If not, find out how successes are communicated, who is involved with improvement efforts and (more importantly) who is not, and determine if your efforts are creating visible changes that matter to your customers. Does your work support your corporate strategy, and will your current or future customers benefit?  Your approach initially may have worked well, but has become stale and started favoring process over results.  Emphasize what is working, and stop what is not important to your customers.