Blog #4: The Traditional Framework for Applying Continual Improvement

(Fair Lawn, NJ - January 22, 2018) - This is the 4th in a series of blogs posted in early 2018 with excerpts from an upcoming book: Project Management for Performance Improvement Teams (PM4PITs) co-authored by our COO -- Bill Ruggles -- which is scheduled to come out in early May!

The 1st blog provided an excerpt from the book's Preface which identified the ingenious, iterative and scalable "APECC" framework that serves as the foundation for the entire book.

The 2nd one provided an excerpt from the book's single longest chapter #3 - Project Change Management and Bill's co-author Dr. H. James Harrington who wrote most of its content.

Last week's blog provides an excerpt from Chapter 1 which addressed 'traditional' project management (and continual improvement) and its 3 key shortcomings.

This week, we provide another excerpt from Chapter 1 which addresses the 'traditional' approach to continual improvement and its 4 key shortcomings.

The classic book The Improvement Process – How America’s Leading Companies Improve Quality by Dr. H. James Harrington set the foundation for improvement technologies.  In this book, since the two terms are often used interchangeably, we distinguish between “continuous” and “continual” improvement:

Continuous Improvement is defined as “when customer expectations are continuously getting more difficult to meet, and as a result, the process output must continue to improve.”  Examples would be techniques such as Total Quality Management, Area Activity Analysis, Kaizen, Activity-Based Costing, Business Process Improvement, Flow Charting, etc. used as an ongoing effort to increase the efficiency of a process by eliminating waste and/or non-value added activities. It assumes a perpetual work duration.

Continual Improvement, on the other hand, is focused on "making improvements of various sizes achieved periodically by project teams via a traditional approach such as the 'Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) cycle defined by Shewhart and the 'Plan-Do-Study-Act' (PDSA) cycle defined by Deming."  Examples of this approach include those strategic initiatives used to identify and make changes that result in better, faster, less costly, or smarter project outcomes with periodic interruptions between initiatives. 

Continual Improvement can be applied toward making incremental enhancements in the quality of project management or the quality of a product, service, system or result and assumes a duration that continues over a lengthy period of time but with intervals of interruption between projects. This book and this chapter focus on the latter term:  Continual Improvement.

'PDCA' or 'PDSA' is a four-step, cyclical, and iterative model based on the 'scientific method' originally created for problem-solving or carrying out change which is often an 'improvement' over something on a continual or continuing basis.  While solving a problem is NOT continual improvement, solving a series of problems continually and using those outcomes to improve performance standards and reduce performance variance IS continual improvement.

One way of thinking of the differences between the two concepts is this:

On the one hand, Problem Solving usually creates a change based on a negative stimulus or reactive driving force (e.g., determining how to respond to a customer complaint, determining the root cause of a missed goal, performing a lessons learned after an unsuccessful bid, analyzing an inefficient process, etc.).

On the other hand, Continual Improvement creates a change based on a positive stimulus or proactive driving force (e.g., a higher profit margin than last year, better survey results than last quarter, a faster shipment of a package than before, a lower price than the competition…all while maintaining the same level of quality, etc.).

Here’s how each of the four steps of the PDCA Cycle is supposed to work:

  1. Plan: Identify or recognize an opportunity and plan for a potential change, including the preparation of a proposal or hypothesis. (Note:  There is a lot and often TOO MUCH included in this step which often overwhelms the user.)
  2. Do: Implement or test the proposed change or hypothesis either by carrying out a small-scale experiment or study, or by conducting a 'proof of concept' pilot.
  3. Check: Review the test/pilot, analyze the results, and use the data to analyze and identify what you’ve learned from it.  Did you validate the hypothesis or not? Did your implemented solution actually work or not? (Note: This is probably the most frequently skipped step.)
  4. Act: Take action based on what you learned in the Check phase: If the change did not work as expected, go through the cycle again with a different plan. If it was successful, incorporate what you learned from the test into other changes or on a wider scale. Use what you learned to plan new improvements or solve new problems. Then, either suspend the CI Initiative or begin the PDCA cycle all over again by returning to “Plan”. (Note: This step only allows for the user to Re-Plan if the outcome of the test/pilot was different than expected.)

What’s Wrong With the Traditional Framework for Continual Improvement?

In spite of its widespread use, much like the 'traditional' Project Management Framework described in our last Blog, we have encountered four serious shortcomings trying to apply this 'traditional' Continual Improvement Framework that serves as the 'engine' for Performance Improvement.  It, too, falls short of providing Senior Management, the PMO, the Project Manager, the Kaizen Leader, the Black Belt, the Green Belt and his/her Project Team with the latest in conceptual and theoretical underpinnings to address the unique challenges and opportunities of 21st century projects and programs, particularly those focused on performance improvement. 

These four (4) shortcomings are the following:

  1. The Overloaded “Plan” Step at the Front-End of the Cycle;
  2. The Overlooked “Check” (or “Study”) Step (3rd one) of the Cycle;
  3. The Inadequate “Act” Step at the Back-End of the Cycle; and
  4. Prevention is Missing – There is inadequate focus on new product design and performance reliability.

For more details regarding these shortcomings and, more importantly, how to OVERCOME them with our Contemporary Framework, be sure to pre-order your copy of our book by going to:

In the meantime, please let us know if you have any questions or comments about 'traditional' continual or continuous improvement in a performance improvement project context by contacting us either at or simply leave us a comment below.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published