Continuous Improvement Part 4: Methods and Tools

ODonnellMike O'Donnell is a Senior Consultant for MAGNET Client Services








For a continuous improvement project to be effective and sustainable, it requires a systems approach involving the entire organization. Management should guide the organization in four fundamental areas to ensure success:

  1. Purpose: maximizing customer value
  2. Process: continually improving speed and defects for factory and office
  3. People: involving people in improving the process, providing knowledge and tools
  4. Sustainable culture: encouraging change, communicating success and results

Methods and Tools—FAQ’s

Improvement methods and tools can be used in all industries. There is not one right tool for all problems. Rather, the right tool for each job is based on the nature of the problem to be solved. A sage once said “To a hammer, all problems look like a nail.”

Following are eight definitions of important methods and tools for manufacturers, in the Frequently Asked Question (FAQ) format.


  1. What are the Problem Solving Tools (Seven Basic Quality Tools)?
  2. What is Lean?
  3. What is Six Sigma?
  4. What is the synergy between Lean and Six Sigma?
  5. What is the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program?
  6. What is ISO/TS/AS?
  7. How can I determine the best approach to solving a problem?
  8. Are we stuck in the Tool Age?


1. What are the Problem-Solving Tools (aka Seven Basic Quality Tools)?

The Problem Solving Tools (aka the Seven Basic Quality Tools) are based on the work of Kaoru Ishikawa, and use data to guide decisions. This method can be used in all levels in the organization, in manufacturing and the office. No advanced training is needed. Anyone can use these tools  to solve problems. I recommend MAGNET clients consider using the Problem Solving Tools before using more complex tools. Check out the resources available to you at ASQ’s Seven Basic Quality Tools page.

2. What is Lean?

Lean has three main principles:

  1. Producing only what is needed;
  2. Producing only when it is needed; and
  3. Satisfying the customer.

The Lean method was developed by Taiichi Ohno and others at Toyota in the 1950’s. It’s precursor was the Toyota Production System. In the 1990s, the method  was further refined in the United States.


Lean focuses on identifying and reducing the eight factory wastes.


Lean focuses on the elimination of “waste” activities—wasted time, wasted money, or wasted resources. Lean projects seek to reduce lead times and achieve business objectives. Lean is an integrated management system and philosophy that can be applied in both manufacturing and office processes.

Lean Tools Chart

The lowest row of tools provide the foundation (5S, visual, layout, value stream mapping). Apply foundation tools first and then upper level tools.


3. What is Six Sigma?

In the 1980s, Motorola formalized the Six Sigma method for manufacturing. In the 1990s, General Electric extended the concept to service businesses.

This method’s benefits include improving productivity, speed and quality by using data collection, advanced statistics and experimentation to identify and eliminate “special causes,” reduce process variation and improve  processes. This method is also effective in reducing intermittent problems.

Eliminate Causes

Six Sigma focuses first on reducing process variation and then on improving the process capability.


Six Sigma is an integrated management system, a philosophy, and a metric for improvement. Here’s a free, 18-page introduction to the essential Six Sigma concept of variation from SAS, a provider of business analytic software:

Six Sigma Tools

The lowest row of tools provide the foundation (process map, graphical, statistics, teams). Apply foundation tools first and then upper level tools.


4.  What is the synergy between Lean and Six Sigma?

Here’s an example of how Lean and Six Sigma, deployed together, can “supercharge” results. Rockwell Automation Power Systems developed a program it calls Power Lean, complete with its own internal certification path for “Power Masters.” In a short article on the SAE International web site, Rockwell’s Director of Lean Enterprise describes the program:

“Lean Enterprise is centered on the concept of flow [of materials and information] … One of the major inhibitors to flow in a production environment or business process is variation and defects … reduction of variation and defect elimination can be greatly enhanced by the adoption of Six Sigma tools and methodologies. It is for this reason that Lean Enterprise and Six Sigma make for an ideal merger.”

From: “Seamless Integration of Lean Enterprise And Six Sigma,” by James Illing, Director Lean Enterprise, Rockwell Automation Power Systems, SAE International


5. What is the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program?


The Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award recognizes U.S. organizations in the business, health care, education, and nonprofit sectors for performance excellence. The Baldrige Award is the only formal recognition of the performance excellence of both public and private U.S. organizations given by the President of the United States.


The Baldrige Performance Excellence Program is a federal program to improve the competitiveness and performance of U.S. organizations, established in 1987 and named for then Secretary of Commerce Malcolm Baldridge. The program and its associated annual award are managed by the National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST).

The Baldridge Program helps organizations self-assess and improve their processes and business results. The program includes the following seven assessment criteria:

  1. Leadership;
  2. Strategic Planning;
  3. Customer Focus;
  4. Measurement, Analysis and Knowledge Management;
  5. Workforce Focus;
  6. Operations Focus; and
  7. Results.

Here’s a link to a 20-slide Power Point presentation with a useful introduction to the Baldridge program: “2011 Path to Excellence and Some Path-Building Tools,” Baldridge Performance Excellence Program, 2011 (PPT)

6. What is ISO/TS/AS?

The International Standards Organization (ISO) develops and maintains international standards in many areas. The ISO standards for Quality Systems Management Systems include requirements, product and company certification, and auditing. These requirements are outlined for organizations to deliver products/services to meet customer requirements, enhance customer satisfaction, and continuously improve the system.

Three relevant Quality Management System Standards are:

In some markets—and expeciall in aviation/defense—customers may require suppliers to be ISO/TS/AS certified in one of the above standards. My colleague, Dennis Rosa, has written an excellent and succinct explanation of the AS9100C standard:  “Get Ready for the AS9100C Transition“, by Dennis Rosa, MAGNET Manufacturing Roundup, July 2010.

7. How can I determine the best approach to solving a problem?

It is important to select the right approach for problems. An overview and flow chart of the selection process is shown below.

1. First describe the problem and use value stream mapping to map the current state of the process (product and information) to identify flow issues (queues, delays, rework, push) and also assess the process capability to identify variation issues (process capability, errors).

For an example, here’s a link to Chapter 3.4.6, “Assessing Process Capability” from the NIST/SEMATECH Engineering Handbook of Statistical Methods.

Management expert James P. Womack, founder and senior advisor of the Lean Enterprise Institute, talks about the reasons for using Value Stream Maps in this YouTube video.


2. If variation is the major issue, use 6 Sigma for highly complex problems, use basic problem solving tools for low complexity.

3. If flow is the major issue, use lean if the problem is not readily apparent, issue action items and implement if the problem is readily apparent and well defined.

Flow Chart

Study and map the process/problem to determine the correct approach. Utilize project management tools to ensure effective project implementation.

8. “Are we Stuck in the Tool Age?”

Although knowledge and tools are important to implementation and results, they are not sufficient to ensure sustainability. Many organizations, hungry for quick fixes, focus heavily on tools and achieve short term results, but no long term impact. Here’s another video clip by James P. Womack:


Want more details? Contact Us!

We’re interested in hearing about you and your organization’s continuous improvement results, and the effectiveness of the Methods and Tools you use. Comment below or email me at

Let us know what is working and what is not.

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