Definition

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Quality Improvement

(Alias: continuous improvement)

Respect your past but continually update.
             - Willie G. Davidson, Harley-Davidson Motor Co.

Continuous quality improvement is a fundamental requirement of all quality management systems. It is a recurring theme in all quality management literature and international standards including ISO 90011 (refer clause 0.2 Process approach). The core principle is that quality improvement is not a one-time effort; it is an ongoing process that lasts for the life of an enterprise. Experience has shown that without a constant focus on product quality and process improvement organisations naturally descend into randomness and quality standards lapse sometimes with catastrophic results for the company and its customers.

Catastrophe in the Absence of Quality Improvement

Nowhere was the need for quality improvement been more evident than in the case of the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster. On January 28, 1986 Challenger broke up 73 seconds after liftoff with the resultant deaths of its seven crew members. Disintegration of the entire vehicle began after an O-ring seal in its right solid rocket booster (SRB) failed at liftoff. The O-ring failure caused a breach in the SRB joint it sealed, allowing pressurized hot gas from within the solid rocket motor to reach the outside and impinge upon the adjacent SRB attachment hardware and external fuel tank. This led to the separation of the right-hand SRB's aft attachment and the structural failure of the external tank. Aerodynamic forces promptly broke up the orbiter.
The Rogers Commission (appointed to investigate the incident) found NASA's organizational culture and decision-making processes had been key contributing factors to the accident. NASA managers had known contractor Morton Thiokol's design of the SRBs contained a potentially catastrophic flaw in the O-rings since 1977, but failed to address it properly. They also disregarded warnings from engineers about the dangers of launching the shuttle at the low temperatures of that morning. In short, defects had been detected but no corrective action taken.
Challenger Space Shuttle Liftoff

The Quality Improvement Cycle

Management must drive quality improvement encouraging, and providing opportunities for, everyone in the organisation to get involved. In a modern software development organisation the constant review and updating of product functionality, processes, standards and procedures is a hygiene factor for staying in business.

Improvement initiatives are driven by process improvement groups staffed by subject matter experts in product design, manufacture and service delivery. The figure depicts process improvement as a never ending activity. It takes in defect reports from day to day operations, trends them over time, determines causes and corrective actions and makes changes in development practices to eliminate problems and incrementally improve the overall quality of the end product.

Process improvement groups also field new ideas on better ways of doing the work and builds them into the company's best-known practices.

Collaboration

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