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Process Improvement Techniques for Operational Success

We put together a list of the most common and helpful business process improvement tools and techniques that you can start implementing today. Each will help your team improve product quality, increase customer satisfaction, and achieve optimal performance with minimal waste.


During this phase, it is crucial not to jump to a solution. As much as half of the time in a PDSA improvement cycle should be spent on planning. The plan should identify the individuals who will be involved in testing the improvement and those who will be impacted by it. The plan should include a timeline and communication strategy.

A PDSA cycle includes:

Plan: During this phase, it is crucial not to jump to a solution. As much as half of the time in a PDSA improvement cycle should be spent on planning. The plan should identify the individuals who will be involved in testing the improvement and those who will be impacted by it. The plan should include a timeline and communication strategy.


Do: Once you've completed the planning phase and made a hypothesis about specific changes expected to lead to measurable improvement, the "do" step can begin. This part of the cycle should be considered experimental - and as with a scientific experiment, careful observation and data collection are just as important as the action itself.

Study: During the study phase, the results of the experimental improvement are compared against the hypothesis, and we look to make sure that the change didn't create any side effects. Finally, the team gathers the data and analyzes it to determine if a measurable improvement was achieved and if the results meet the expectations defined in the planning phase.

Act / Adjust: If the study phase reveals that the change resulted in the anticipated improvement (without causing any new problems), then you can begin to adjust. The improved process becomes the new baseline for future operations, standard work documents are revised to include the change, and managers can modify performance expectations.

Critically, the PDSA cycle is not a one-time event. Once the changes are in place, the cycle begins again, seeking to move the process ever closer to perfection. Continuous improvement software helps organizations manage the constant iterations of PDSA.


A3 reporting is a structured problem-solving and continuous improvement approach that was first developed at Toyota and is typically used by lean manufacturing practitioners and any organization leveraging total quality management. The use of A3s is spreading to organizations in every industry and is quite popular amongst our customers. An A3 report is one page that documents the results from the PDSA cycle. A3s get their name from the A3-sized sheet of paper on which they are designed to fit.

The problems with the A3 process typically revolve around transparency, communication, standardization, and long-term institutional knowledge. When you have people all around an organization filling out a complex document on paper, it's nearly impossible to know who is working on what, get everyone to stick to the standard process, and share that knowledge with others over time.

A3 software like KaiNexus makes it possible to view your A3 reports electronically in the layout you're used to, with the critical benefits of increasing transparency and accountability. In addition, such software allows you to drill down into the details of any A3 on the spot and share improvements to drive a more widespread impact.


5S is the name of a workplace organization method initially applied in manufacturing. Today, many organizations in a wide variety of industries have since found that 5S is an effective way to achieve rapid continuous improvement.

5S focuses on improving five elements that make people more effective and efficient in their work. It earned its name because these five principles start with the letter "S" in both English and Japanese.

Sort (Seiri): Keep only what is regularly used in the workplace nearby.

Straighten (Seiton): Arrange the space so workers can find precisely what they need to use in less than 30 seconds.

Shine (Seiso): Ensure that the workplace and equipment are clean, maintained, and ready for immediate use

Standardize (Seiketsu): Each job is done in the same way, and everyone is challenged to offer ideas to improve it.

Sustain (Sustain): Foster a safe, efficient, and effective workplace is everyone's responsibility.


The idea of Catchball is quite simple. Someone starts a rapid improvement or planning project. They define the purpose, goals, background, and challenges and then "throw" them to other stakeholders for opinions, help, and action. It is clear who has ownership of the idea (ball) at every point. The ball can bounce around back and forth among all of the players until the improvement or plan is complete. While the idea often starts with management, the ball moves freely up and down the org chart.

What's the point of all this "extra" effort?

You hire innovative, capable employees for a reason — and it's not just to pull levers or move patients. These team members all have the ability to contribute ideas and experience in pursuit of achieving your strategic organizational goals. One of the most effective ways to develop a culture where everyone is working toward the same goals is to connect each layer of the organization, from the c-suite to the front lines, with the corporate strategy. When this alignment is achieved, everyone can work together to deliver value to customers. Catchball is a simple yet powerful tool for rolling out the plan such that it touches every individual in a meaningful way.


DMAIC is a project management methodology with five phases; define measure, analyze, improve, control. These steps are used to help ensure that improvements are data-driven, measurable, and repeatable. The DMAIC improvement cycle is an effective technique for structured change management. The emphasis on measurement and analysis helps ensure that opportunities for improvement are executed in a way that provides the most positive impact. It is most useful for improvements that can be measured statistically, often using a process control chart.

Define:  The Define phase is all about selecting high-impact opportunities for improvement and understanding which metrics will indicate project success. During this phase, the leaders will perform activities such as identifying the improvement opportunity, outlining the project's scope, estimating the project impact, and creating a team.

Measure: Existing processes are documented during the Measure phase, and a baseline is established. Critical activities at this point include (but are not limited to) developing the methodology by which the team will collect data to evaluate success and gather, plot, and analyze current state data.

Analyze: The goal of the Analyze phase is to find and validate the root causes of business problems and ensure that improvement is focused on causes rather than symptoms. Doing so involves, in part, developing a problem statement, completing a root cause verification analysis, designing measurable improvement experiments, and developing an improvement plan.

Improve:  Once you reach the Improvement phase, it is time to determine which steps will be taken and begin to roll out the changes that the analysis has prescribed. In this stage, it's common to generate and evaluate solution ideas, determine expected solution benefits, and communicate solutions to all stakeholders.

Control: The objective of the last stage is to develop the monitoring processes and procedures that will ensure long-term success. To do so, you'll need to do things like verify the reduction in failures due to the targeted root cause, determine if additional improvement is necessary to achieve the project goal, update your Standard Work documentation and process map, and integrate lessons learned.

Each of the phases should be documented and managed in your improvement software platform.

Gemba Walks

The term "Gemba" means "The real place" in Japanese. The Gemba walk technique involves managers or supervisors going to the place where work gets done to observe and identify opportunities for improvement. Changes are implemented only after the walk is complete and a period of reflection occurs.

Here are some do's and don'ts for Gemba Walks

The idea behind Gemba walks is that the staff on the front lines of any workplace have the best ideas for improving the processes they operate since they're the ones doing the work. As a result, they'll come up with minor, low-cost, low-risk improvements that add up to a significant impact. Usually, these are ideas that senior leaders would never have thought up in their offices. As the father of Kaizen, Masaaki Imai, put it, "Gemba can be a hotel dining room, a car dealer's service department, a doctor's examination room. One place that is not Gemba is a manager's desk."

The face-to-face time that comes from Gemba walks sends the message that leadership is interested in the ideas of the employees. By getting out of your office and talking to people on the front lines, you show your own dedication to rapid continuous improvement, which gives others the sense that they too can prioritize this work.

Hoshin Kanri

Hoshin Kanri (also called Policy Deployment) is a strategic planning method that ensures everyone in an organization is driving toward the same goals. It is also a tool for balancing the need to achieve long-term goals and address daily improvement opportunities at the same time.

Here are some signs to tell you if your organization would benefit from Hoshin Kanri.

Unlike other approaches to planning, Hoshin Kanri is not done from the top-down. People at every level of the organization are involved in setting the priorities and laying out the plan for success.

Here are some advantages of using the Hoshin Kanri approach:

  • A focus on action, not just on goals. It forces you to ask, "where do I want to go, and what needs to happen to get there?"
  • Improved organizational alignment, from the front lines to the executive suite
  • Increased engagement in improvement by promoting a sense of ownership and accountability for improvement


The practice of Kanban originated at Toyota when they applied the visualization principles that grocery stores use to have on hand the right level of inventory. The idea is to maximize the flow of goods and work. It is achieved through the four principles of Kanban:

  • Visualize the workflow
  • Limit the work-in-progress to a reasonable amount
  • Focusing on maintaining a steady flow
  • Continuously improve

The technique is used by software companies, hospitals, fulfillment centers, and many other kinds of organizations. Any process where work is moved from one stage to another can benefit from the visualization that Kanban provides.

Kanban boards were once physical artifacts that hung on walls. Today modern companies use Kanban software to make visual management a real-time practice that everyone can access regardless of the worker's location.

Standard Work

Standard work is the documentation of the best practices for any task or process. It must be complete, accessible, and up to date. It forms the baseline for rapid improvement activities.

Establishing standard work begins with creating, clarifying, and sharing information about the most efficient method to perform a task that is currently known with everyone performing that process.

Once this information has been shared, everyone practices this standard consistently so that the work is done the best way every time.

This is where continuous improvement comes into play; standard work isn't a "set it and forget it" process, announced once and then permanently unchanging. Instead, everyone should work to improve the standard of how the process works and share new best practices as they're discovered.

The 5 Whys

The 5 Whys is a root cause analysis technique. The practice of the 5 Whys is deployed when a problem arises, and a team wants to find and fix the problem, not just the symptom but the root cause. First, a problem statement is created, and then the team simply asks, "Why," until the root cause is revealed. The actual number of "whys" needed varies, but five seems to be about right.

When deploying the 5 Whys, keep in mind that you are looking for flawed processes, not people. The idea is not to place blame; it is instead to uncover problems with processes, procedures, or standard work.

Value Stream Mapping (VSM)

Value stream mapping is a system of visualizing the connection of every action or process required to produce a product to the value it ultimately brings to the customer. The term originated with the lean management method, but the concept can be applied to almost any value chain. A stream map aims to identify and reduce or eliminate processes that do not add value to the customer and to improve those that do.

The process varies from company to company and even from product to product, but generally includes the following steps:

  • Choose a Sponsor and Define Expectations
  • Assemble a Team
  • Select the Process to be Mapped and Problem to be Solved
  • Create the Current State Map
  • Evaluate Current State
  • Create the Future State Map
  • Plan and Act
  • Measure

Although it is a relatively simple idea, value stream mapping is an extremely useful way to help organizations focus on structuring processes around customer needs. In addition, it can identify opportunities for improvement and help eliminate processes that are not contributing to customer satisfaction.

As you can see, the rapid continuous improvement toolbox is full of useful implements. Just follow grandpa's advice and be sure to pick the right tool for each job. Let us know if there are others you think should be added to this list!


Matt Banna