Improvement methods - is there a best?

Thanks to LinkedIn, I came across a pair of articles that talk about various "process improvement" methodologies and make some claims about which ones are better, or whether they can be combined. For an overview, I suggest Michael Baudin's blog post first even though he wrote it in response to Kirkor Bozdogan's article. (The Bozdogan article is part of a larger set of articles that I have not explored.)

Being an aficionado of process improvement in general, these kinds of papers are helpful. Being a fan of Theory of Constraints, I am disappointed to read the somewhat outdated characterization of the TOC approach.  That said, Baudin's comments that all of these approaches are as much marketing & branding as specific methodologies, I agree that TOC has been losing that particular battle.  

As far as my approach, I have had a lot of experience with TOC and like the systems approach espoused therein. Of course, from the 50,000 ft level, the systems approaches are quite similar: guide things in a direction such that the whole system improves. The specifics of how to do this is where the approaches differ. And I think these articles and others like them are good reasons to think about those differences and similarities. 

For example, when TOC suggest "exploit the constraint," how does one go about doing that? While there are some rules of thumb (reduce downtime, ensure quality, offload non-critical work), more detailed work might require employing techniques that are normally considered part of other toolkits.  Similarly, when TOC suggests "subordinate to the constraint," the ways to go about that will vary and a again draw from many disciplines.  

The key that TOC brings is that it is not possible to improve everything - that it doesn't even make sense to improve everything when your time, attention and money is limited. Improve those things that will have the biggest impact on the bottom line: that is the constraint.

The articles:

  • Kirkor Bozdogan, Towards An Integration Of The Lean Enterprise System, Total Quality Management, Six Sigma And Related Enterprise Process Improvement Methods, Aug 2010, a working paper version that was included in Encyclopedia of Aerospace Engineering.
    • Abstract: The lean enterprise system, total quality management, six sigma, theory of constraints, agile manufacturing, and business process reengineering have been introduced as universally applicable best methods to improve the performance of enterprise operations through continuous process improvement and systemic planned enterprise change. Generally speaking, they represent practice-based, rather than theory-grounded, methods with common roots in manufacturing. Most of the literature on them is descriptive and prescriptive, aimed largely at a practitioner audience. Despite certain differences among them, they potentially complement each other in important ways. The lean enterprise system, total quality management and six sigma, in particular, are tightly interconnected as highly complementary approaches and can be brought together to define a first-approximation “core” integrated management system, with the lean enterprise system serving as the central organizing framework. Specific elements of the other approaches can be selectively incorporated into the “core” enterprise system to enrich its effectiveness. Concrete theoretical and computational developments in the future through an interdisciplinary research agenda centered on the design and development of networked enterprises as complex adaptive socio-technical systems, as well as the creation of a readily accessible observatory of evidence-based management practices, would represent important steps forward.
  • Michael Baudin, MIT article comparing Lean, TQM, Six Sigma, “and related enterprise process improvement methods”, blog post from Jan 2013.

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