The Shingo Model - Continuous Process Improvement

Continuous improvement begins by clearly defining value through the eyes of customers. Expectations must be clearly communicated so systems can be designed to meet customer needs. Every employee must know “what good is” whether his or her process is creating good product or service, and they must know what to do if it is not.

As associates learn to identify and eliminate waste, they will, by necessity, follow Dr Shingo’s advice: “Improvement means the elimination of waste, and the most essential precondition for improvement is the proper pursuit of goals. We must not be mistaken, first of all, about what improvement means. The four goals for improvement must be to make things easier, better, faster and cheaper.” Particular emphasis is placed on a quicker, more flexible response throughout the system.

The focus for continuous improvement cannot be only quality or cost but instead must incorporate all aspects of value as perceived by the customer, including innovation, quality, cost, flexibility quick delivery and a comprehensive view of environmental health and safety. Continuous improvement focused on the flow of value requires both scientific thinking and the capacity to identify and eliminate waste (things that interrupt the continuous flow of value).

Focus on Process

A process focus recognizes that all outputs, whether product or service, are created by processes acting upon inputs. This simple truth is often overlooked: Good processes will produce the intended output, as long as proper inputs are provided.

Process focus also helps focus problem-solving efforts on process rather than people. A complete shift to process focus eliminates the tendency to find the culprit (person) who made the mistake but rather leads to a pursuit of the real culprit (process) that allowed the mistake to be made. Thus, process focus also supports the cultural enablers, creating an environment where learning from mistakes can become a powerful element of continuous improvement.

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Leonardo Da Vinci

Embrace Scientific Thinking

A focus on process lends itself to scientific thinking, a natural method for learning and the most effective approach to improvement. All associates can be trained to use scientific thinking to improve the processes with which they work, creating a culture that provides common understanding, approach and language regarding improvement. Scientific thinking is also results-based, placing a premium on defining and communicating desired outcomes throughout the organization.

There are a variety of models for scientific thinking, such as PDCA (plan, do, check and adjust), the QI Story, A3 thinking and DMAIC (define, measure, analyze, improve and control).

Flow and Pull Value

Flow thinking is the focus on shortening lead-time from the beginning of the value stream to the end of the value stream and on removing all barriers (waste) that impede the creation of value and its delivery to the customer. Flow is the best driver to make processes faster, easier, cheaper and better. Other potential drivers such as unit cost or process variability are too narrowly focused, distorting priorities and delivering suboptimal results. A cost focus is particularly dangerous when it creates perverse incentives and budget manipulations incidental to actual improvement.

Pull is the concept of matching the rate of production to the level of demand, the goal in any environment. Yet pull is not feasible or cost-effective without the flexibility and short lead times that result from the flow.

Flow and pull create enormous positive benefits in all aspects of any business. Focusing on flow will lead to improvements, including better safety and morale, more consistent quality with fewer defects, increases in on-time delivery and flexibility and lower costs, without running into the traditional trade-offs. In addition, daily and weekly results become more consistent and predictable.

Assure Quality at the Source

Assuring quality at the source is the combination of three important concepts:

  1. Do not pass defects forward, 
  2. Stop and fix problems and 
  3. Respect the individual in the process. 

Defects are a source of instability and waste so assuring quality at the source requires the establishment of processes for recognizing errors in the process itself. Organizations must commit to stopping and fixing processes that are creating defects, rather than keeping products or services moving while planning to fix the issue later. Proper use of the human element in the process of thinking, analysis, problem-solving and the implementation of countermeasures is vital to continuous improvement.

Seek Perfection

It is important to understand that the continuous process improvement journey has no end. This explains Dr Shingo’s philosophy that one should always look for problems where there doesn’t appear to be any. This is contrary to the traditional belief: “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.” The pursuit of perfection reveals that there are always opportunities for improvement. There is always waste, and the more a process is observed the more waste will be seen. While focussing on process guides and directs the improvement efforts, seeking for perfection is the engine that keeps improvement energized and moving forward at an aggressive pace. The term problem-solving may imply that after a solution is implemented, improvement is done. Seeking perfection and scientific thinking combine to find countermeasures, not game-ending solutions, and then revisits the issue, again and again, pursuing perfection without really expecting to find it.

The pursuit of perfection reveals that there are always opportunities for improvement

Stabilize Processes

Stability in processes is the bedrock foundation of any improvement system, creating consistency and repeatability. Stability is a prerequisite for improvement providing a basis for problem identification and continuous improvement. Almost all of the continuous improvement principles rely on stability. Stability is the precursor to achieving flow. Many of the rationalizations for waste are based on the instability of processes as if they are beyond our control. Instead, we should apply the basic tools available to reduce or eliminate instability and create processes that enable the identification and elimination of waste.

Standardize Processes

While stability is a necessary precondition for creating flow and improvement, standardization builds control into the process itself. Standardization is the supporting principle behind maintaining improvement, rather than springing back to preceding practices and results. Standardization also eliminates the need to control operations through cost standards, production targets or other traditional supervisory methods. When standardization is in place, the work itself serves as the management control mechanism. Supervisors are freed up for other tasks when they are not “required” to monitor and control the work process.

Insist on Direct Observation

Direct observation is a supporting principle tied to scientific thinking. It is, in fact, the first step of the scientific method. Direct observation is necessary to truly understand the process or phenomenon being studied. All too frequently, perceptions, past experience, instincts and inaccurate standards are misconstrued as reality. Through direct observation, reality can be seen, confirmed and established as the consensus.

Focus on Value Stream

Flow and pull value combined with the focus on a process lead to the necessity of defining value streams and focusing organizational attention on them. A value stream is the collection of all of the necessary steps required to deliver value to the customer. Defining what customers value is an essential step to focus on the value stream. Clearly understanding the entire value stream, however, is the only way for an organization to improve the value delivered and/or improve the process by which it is delivered

Keep It Simple and Visual

In society today there is frequently a bias toward complex solutions and a premium paid to those who seem to manage complexity well. However, it is usually the case that better results at a lower cost can be achieved by simplification. Dr Shingo’s life work in mistake proofing is centred on this principle. Many of the seven forms of waste are in fact the result of information deficits. Making information visual is the supporting principle that when combined with simplification solves the information deficits.

Identify and Eliminate Waste

Identification and elimination of waste is a practical concept for making processes flow, thus it becomes a primary focus of continuous improvement. Waste elimination is a powerful supporting principle because it is easily understood by everyone associated with a value stream, compared to the complex concepts and computations often associated with the cost per unit, cost variances, statistical variability and other complex metrics. Focusing on the elimination of waste will consistently drive appropriate behaviour, while the wrong focus can frequently become a barrier to improvement, large inventory write-downs, fire sales or scrap.

One way to view waste is that it is anything that slows or interrupts the continuous flow of value to customers. In the end, identifying and eliminating waste is a concept that effectively engages the entire organization in the continuous improvement effort.

No Defect Passed Forward

This concept is essential for operational excellence from many different points of view. From a leader’s perspective, it requires great courage to stop the process long enough to understand the root cause and take counter-measures that prevent the process from reoccurring. For the leader, this often means trading any short-term loss for substantial long-term gain. From a manager’s perspective, systems must be in place to ensure that any result that varies from the standard, even slightly, creates an expectation of and support for immediate action. We often call this “swarming.” From an associate’s point of view, “no defect passed forward” requires a mindset of ownership and accountability. If standards are clearly defined, every person should know what good is.

Leaders and managers should role model then create the conditions for associates to develop the mindset of personal integrity; meaning, that no one would ever knowingly or willingly forward the outcome of their valuable contribution to someone else if it contained the slightest variation from the standard. This supporting concept feeds the mindset and tools of continuous improvement and creates the conditions for seeking perfection. It is possible to achieve perfection in the application of this concept.

Integrate Improvement with Work

As the migration toward a principle-based culture occurs, the activities and approaches for continuous improvement become a part of the everyday work of every employee in an organization. Associates become “scientists” who continually assess the current state of their processes and pursue a better future state that will enhance the value (or eliminate the waste) and thus pursue perfection. Each person in an organization performs daily work. When improvement is integrated with work, each person accepts responsibility for improvement of the daily work processes.

Executives are responsible for improving strategy-setting processes or perhaps resource alignment processes. They are primarily responsible to deploy mission-critical strategy and metrics down into the organization such that every person not only has a clear line of sight to what matters the most but are also motivated by the mission in a way that creates a compelling case for improvement.

Managers are responsible for improving quality systems, or performance development systems or value stream flow. Line workers are responsible for improving their cycle times, or quality of work or yields. Integrating improvement with work is more than assigning responsibility. It entails the creation of standardized work that defines systems for improvement.

Rely on Data & Facts

Shingo emphasized the importance of being data-driven in the pursuit of continuous improvement. He frequently shared examples of specific situations where data was collected, but it was not the correct data or the data wasn’t actually being used in the improvement process.

Finally, he was adamant that the understanding of the actual process be so detailed that when implementing a change in the process, the improvement, as evidenced by the data, could be predicted. Thus, reconciliation is required between the predicted results and the actual results, making the improvement process truly data-driven. The principle is that when data is treated loosely or imprecisely, there is a tendency to leave potential improvement on the table or, even worse, to not achieve any improvement at all.

Examples of Ideal Principle-based Behavior


  • Every leader devotes a significant amount of his/her time (up to 80 per cent) ensuring the principles of continuous improvement are deeply embedded in every facet of the organizational culture.
  • Every leader consistently evaluates their own behaviour related to each of the principles.
  • Leaders ensure continuous improvement is a part of their daily standard work and are accountable to others for their improvement.
  • Leaders in all areas create a healthy tension between celebrating accomplishments and setting goals to move to the next level.
  • All leaders in every area of the organization encourage the establishment of stretch goals and encourage managers and associates to push themselves to levels of performance that do not seem possible.
  • Leaders consistently ask for and expect to see the application of appropriate tools to understand root cause prior to implementing countermeasures.
  • Leaders expect and support the role of managers in designing and constantly improving systems at the business, management, improvement and work levels as the first course of action when results are less than expected.
  • Every leader understands and balances the organizational focus on both behaviours and results, holding themselves and others accountable for both.


  • Managers in all areas devote a significant amount of their time (up to 80 per cent) ensuring the management systems of the organization are perfectly aligned to drive ideal principle-based behaviour.
  • All managers participate with associates as required on improvement initiatives.
  • Managers demonstrate knowledge of appropriate tools and use them regularly to solve problems related to their areas of responsibility.
  • All managers watch for and appropriately recognize associates for both demonstrating ideal behaviour and for achieving business goals.


  • Every associate in every part of the organization is engaged every day in using the appropriate tools of continuous improvement to eliminate waste and maximize value creation.
  • Associates everywhere seek to understand the principles (the why) behind the tools (the how); they learn and use that knowledge to continuously improve the application of the tools.
  • All associates demonstrate the courage and integrity, to tell the truth, stop production and be accountable for defects they observe or create themselves.
  • Associates share their expertise in developing best practice standard work and demonstrate the discipline to follow it until a better way has been developed.

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