How to Choose a Continuous Improvement Approach

By Jon Miller Updated on June 3rd, 2019

Most business leaders are at least familiar with one or more of the popular modern management improvement approaches such as BPM, TQM, Six Sigma and Lean. In many large organizations, several of these are being attempted at the same time, across different parts of the company, at varying speeds, levels of commitment and support. All of these approaches are good. One may think that more of a good thing would be better. When it comes to running improvement management approaches, this is not so. It result in duplication of effort, overlap or roles, disputes over ownership of resources and result, a growing suspicion that these efforts are somehow insufficient, and confusion as to why.

The aim of this article is not an in-depth explanation of these four approaches. It is to support the decision-maker informed in the basics but still confused between them, by highlighting their essential differences. For readers who ask, “What are TQM, BPM, Lean and Six Sigma in the first place?” a brief summary of each follows. The well-informed reader may wish to skip the next four paragraphs.

Business Process Management (BPM) is an approach that uses various methods to investigate, observe, measure, model, analyze, improve, and automate business processes. While BPM methods can be applied to industrial processes, there are more appropriate approaches. BPM has origins in Business Process Reengineering (BPR) with the concern that information technology was being misapplied to automate processes without first reducing non-value added elements. With the recognition that simply reengineering processes is not sufficient, M replaced the R, with a resulting focus on improving, maintaining, and managing business performance. Its origin trace back to the 1990s.

Total Quality Management (TQM) involves organization-wide efforts to create an environment where people can continuously improve the organization’s ability to deliver goods and services that meet the customers’ needs. “Total” emphasizes the fact that all functions and departments must participate. There is no specific “operating system” or “production system” model specifying how work should be designed, performed, or improved. TQM evolved from TQC (Total Quality Control) efforts to improve production quality, upon recognition that continuous improvement was a management-level need rather than focused on process quality alone. Its origins trace back to the 1940s and earlier.

Six Sigma is a set of techniques and tools to define a problem, measure the baseline, analyze the contributing causes, make improvements to the process, and put in place controls to monitor and maintain the gains. Six Sigma aims to improve the output of a process by identifying and removing the causes of variation across industrial and business processes. It has common roots with  TQM and in many ways is  a reduced and concentrated version of it. Improvements are delivered through projects led by specially trained experts who employ a set of statistical methods in a defined framework. Its origins trace back to the 1980s.

Lean Management is a socio-technical system derived from the philosophy, practices and management system developed at Toyota. Lean Management integrates the entire supply chain, all processes, and requires total involvement by every person and total management commitment. It incorporates various improvement improvement tools and techniques. TQM is still taught and practiced at Toyota, and can be considered an integral part of Lean Management. By applying a universal set of principles, Lean Management builds operating systems with common artifacts and behaviors across a wide range of environments. Its origins trace back to the 1950s.

These four approaches share things in common, though expressed differently. They all align efforts to the needs or voice of the customer. They improving processes in a fact-based manner in a cyclical and continuous fashion. They aim to raise the overall performance of the system. Each of these four began as improvement methodologies narrowly-scoped (e.g. production, business process, statistical process performance) and “added the M for Management” as their scope expanded to the whole system. Where decision-makers need to focus their attention is on the notable differences between BPM, TQM, Six Sigma and Lean. In summary these are

Done correctly, each of these can improve business performance. The question the decision-maker must answer is, “Which of these differences matter to me the most?” This requires a level of clarity regarding their vision for continuous improvement. What elements fit or conflict with the desired way of doing things? What will help building your desired organizational culture? How do the circumstances, expectations, scope of effort, resources and leadership commitment match against these features?

Certain practitioners will object, “Our Six Sigma program does include flow, daily management, and an employee idea system!” Others will say that their company’s TQM adopts Lean tools, and uses BPR methods to guide process automation. Some BPM no doubt borrows from the other three. Lean can be done in an expert-led way and Six Sigma can be a “Total” approach by training every employee as a White Belt and empowering them to generate improvement ideas. The features on the table above are not immutable, merely there by design and original intent of these approaches. In actual application we modify these parameters, for better or for worse. The point is to understand what each of these approaches was intended to do, and whether this fits our need.

Educators, consultants and improvement professionals who present these methods as options to decision-makers seldom provide an objective comparisons between them. They may believe that one of them is the best-fitting solution. This may be true, bias can result from expertise and the time invested in developing it. A committed continuous improvement professional must be curious and dedicate time to learn about the nuances of each, recognize the background and context of origin. Admittedly, this article is not free of bias, but it is the result of such a commitment to learning. The decision-maker who is considering these approaches is encouraged to do their own homework.

  1. Martin Ulrich

    June 3, 2019 - 8:38 am

    This is a great article and has identified a key issue and problem for most organizations who in the past have concentrated solely on their business and have only heard the concepts of this thing called lien or Six Sigma or BPM or TQM.

    Congratulations on getting into words the differences in the benefits of each of these approaches and more importantly identifying the need to adopt a program that best fits the individual organization to achieve the results that they are searching for.

    P.S. In your summary report I question whether or not Six Sigma requires an “expert led”, trained individual and your chart indicates “not required”. And I’m confused about the category of “addressing social aspects of work” as I would think BPR and Lean would be the only two, but your chart shows Six Sigma. I would be interested in understanding the reasons behind these decisions.

    • Jon Miller

      June 3, 2019 - 9:31 am

      Hello Martin. Thanks for your comment. I updated the chart to reduce confusion. Hopefully now it is clear. Six Sigma relies on certified Belts to lead projects, and BPR also to a lesser degree, as the depth of process mapping normally requires external consultants or a specialized skill. Lean is a socio-technical system that specifies ways of working and leadership styles, making respect for humanity a pillar. TQM core principles are similar. While many BPR and Six Sigma practitioners will embrace the same, they focus on process and not organization design.

  2. Rey Elbo

    June 4, 2019 - 8:46 am

    Where does Kaizen comes into the picture?

    • Jon Miller

      June 4, 2019 - 9:27 am

      Hello Rey. Kaizen is a part of TPS / Lean. It could be added to the table, and would have Os at Total employee involvement, Concept of value-added, Rapid improvement models. Whether it Addresses social aspect of work is arguable. On the one hand, nothing inherent in the kaizen process does, but many of the principles are human-centered so it is one of the outcomes.

  3. Mark Hampton

    July 12, 2019 - 7:00 am

    Great short synopsis that I will be sharing with leaders in my organization. This is a reminder for those of us who are dedicated Continuous Process Improvement (CPI)professionals that we need to apply the best methodologies to help solve the problem and not fit the problem to our preferred method. While reading my thoughts went to the Kata for Improvement conversation and the question, “What is your next experiment?” As a CPI Coach we need to help our organizations understand “which play to run” (i.e. where to focus the experiment) to overcome the obstacles to improving the process and meeting the needs of the customer. Having a good understanding of all “plays” gives us the best opportunity for success.

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