Get into your Process Improvement Groove

by | Sep 13, 2021

Five steps to build a culture of continuous change and realize sustainable productivity results.

Despite a recovering economy, retail and hospitality companies continue to face a range of operational headwinds. Rising wage pressure can mean having to do more with the same labor budgets. A shortage of skilled workers can lead to greater fatigue and more stressful conditions for your staff. And the increasingly blurred lines between the digital and brick-and-mortar experience can expand the scope and complexity of the services front-line workers execute each day.

To survive and thrive in this environment, organizations need to get the most out of their teams while simultaneously providing a superior guest experience and fostering a positive, healthy, and rewarding workplace. In other words, they need to do more, oftentimes with less, and still keep their customers and employees coming back for more. Not an easy task, but a culture of continuous process improvement can help.

Axsium’s industrial engineers and workforce management specialists have spent decades identifying and implementing process improvements for clients in the field, and have translated all these insights and experiences into five straightforward steps to help your organization get started:

Step 1: Get to know the proven methods.

They say that those who fail to understand history are doomed to repeat it. However, in the world of industrial engineering you might say that those who fail to understand the history of process improvement are doomed to repeat steps (among other wasteful practices). Put another way, unless you possess a supercomputer that can iterate through countless alternative methods to identify the most efficient one, you should become familiar with the available best practices for improving processes before you establish your practice of process improvement.


Fortunately, there is no shortage of proven philosophies or systems to draw from when attempting to introduce or reinvigorate a culture of continuous change within your organization. Two of the most widely used philosophies for process improvement are Kaizen and Total Quality Management (TQM). For many companies, these terms have come to represent a sort of “north star” for their organizations.

You will have likely heard of Kaizen as it is widely used among thousands of companies across the globe. The name is a combination of two Japanese words: Kai meaning change, and Zen meaning good. Good change. Kaizen’s philosophy is that many small improvements, gradually introduced and perfected over time, result in large improvements when amassed across your chain. 


Kaizen is not just about large overhauls of a system or a specific method, though. It’s like a way of life, with everyone in the organization buying into the culture of continuous change. Kaizen features five straightforward tenets to follow everyday: teamwork, personal discipline, improved morale, quality, and improvement suggestions.

TQM, on the other hand, originates from a concerted effort to establish quality control during the production process. Part process improvement philosophy and part management system, TQM involves all employees across the enterprise in the exercise of continual improvement.  But where Kaizen is mainly an internally focused mantra, TQM is structured in a very customer-centric way.


TQM calls for a highly fact-based decision-making process, with its roots grounded in statistics and data science. Like Kaizen, it is process oriented, where the required steps are to be extremely well-defined and constantly monitored in order to detect and correct deviations, i.e., control quality.

These philosophies were developed back in the 1930s and primarily put into practice in Japanese manufacturing, the foremost example being the Toyota Production System. In the decades that followed, other manufacturers around the world began to implement elements of Kaizen and TQM, such as “just-in-time” (JIT) production into their operations. However, these philosophies did not see widespread adoption in other industries until the latter part of the 20th century.

Formalized process improvement philosophies became a focal point for many businesses in the late 1980s when offshoot methodologies called Lean and Six Sigma first entered the corporate lexicon. For many companies outside the manufacturing sphere, their first exposure to Kaizen or TQM came from reading about Lean or Six Sigma in a popular magazine or Harvard Business School case study. Thanks to the revolution of Lean and Six Sigma, process improvement philosophies have been applied to nearly every industry and inspired further evolution still. Let’s now turn our attention to these modern-day methodologies, and what else they’ve spawned.

Lean thinking evolved from the Toyota Production System, which was designed to improve the efficiency and flexibility of its manufacturing processes. Lean practitioners focus on streamlining processes, eliminating waste, and optimizing flow while continuing to deliver value to customers. Six Sigma was developed by an engineer working at Motorola. The term Six Sigma originates from the statistics concept of the bell curve, and the idea is that defects should occur only outside of the central six standard deviations. In other words, 99.99966% of parts produced should be free of defects. The Six Sigma methodology is focused on improving output quality by removing the causes of defects and minimizing process variability.


Today, these methodologies are frequently combined into a single system called Lean Six Sigma. Lean is positioned as an accelerator of the Six Sigma methodology, where the overriding goal is to reach operational excellence and to build a problem-solving culture. Companies that employ this practice make a daily habit out of “finding a better way”.

Naturally, these systems can be implemented in your organization “as-is” and each have a sophisticated set of tools and training, as we’ll discuss in the next blog. But for now, remember the lessons of recency bias. That is, if your company is new to continuous process improvement journey and many on your team are unfamiliar with the proven methodologies, it can be helpful to introduce them in a fresh way that resonates with your company’s ethos and strategic goals, just like Lean and Six Sigma did years ago.

Should you have any questions or wish to engage our labor productivity experts, please contact us here. And be sure to stay tuned for Steps 2-5 in the coming weeks!

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