Is Quality Improvement One-Size Fits All For SMEs?

22 Aug 2021 12:41 PM | Annmarie Uliano (Administrator)

by Dr. Tres Bishop

According to research, one of the most common issues that small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs) face when starting a continuous improvement journey is a lack of resources. This usually comes in two different flavors. The first being financial resources, which can be loosely defined as not having the requisite funds to finance the transformation. The second, a lack of the human resources with the know-how and experience to drive the transformation forward. Larger organizations, where much of the research related to continuous improvement has been targeted, do not seem to have these problems to the same degree as SMEs.

In “How to build a quality management climate. An Action research project”, published by the International Journal of Lean Six Sigma, a SME used the action research methodology to investigate the process of implementing a quality management climate. Action research (AR) is an ideal research methodology for practitioner-scholars, especially in the engineering management community because it combines the generation of theory with solving business problems in a real-world environment. The researcher acts on the system under study, and there are usually two or more interventions within the system. This methodology was first popularized by Kurt Lewin in the 1940’s and has been used in a variety of settings including manufacturing, education and health care. In the study, the research team collaborated with a local SME where the lead researcher was also employed. The cross-functional team chose to employ the 5-step action research cycle first promoted by Susman and Evered in the 1970’s:

  1. Diagnosing: Identify or define a problem in the organization
  2. Action planning: Consider alternative approaches for solving the particular problem
  3. Action taking: Select and implement an action
  4. Evaluating: Study the consequences of the action taken
  5. Specific learning: Highlight what was learned during the project

More details regarding each process step and its related outcomes can be found in the article. For this audience, I’d like to discuss one specific step in the AR cycle, action planning, the second stage. It considers the many alternative approaches a team may use to solve a particular problem.

The main problem this team faced was how to build a climate of quality (COQ) in a SME with limited financial and human resources. In other words, the SME aimed to build the COQ at the lowest possible cost and to use the human resources that were already available to the team, i.e. no other resources would be added. They used existing internal quality data and the collective experience and intuition of the employees of the sponsor company to create a solution unique to the content of the situation.

The team chose to build the COQ based on the following 4 critical success factors (CSFs), or what the team called to as the lean pillars:

  1. Top management support
  2. Collaboration
  3. Data centered decision making
  4. Process focus

Interestingly, two of the factors (top management support and collaboration) were thought to be positively correlated to the SME environment, and two (data-based decision making and process focus) were thought to be negatively correlated to the same environment. This meant that two of the factors should be easier to implement than the others and require less time than the other two therefore allowing the team to focus on the negatively correlated factors. This line of reasoning turned out to be accurate; however, the mixture of factors was incorrect. Top management support was indeed easier to manage at the SME but encouraging collaboration proved to be difficult, at least in the beginning of the effort. Data-based decision making caught on quickly once a tool to manage all the data was procured and the team was properly trained on its use. Process focus was, as expected, difficult to implement.

The key takeaway from this study is that the SME was able to make a lasting and impactful result in the quality management climate of the organization as measured by a reduction in defect count. After the first iteration of the action research cycle, the team had successfully reduced the defect count by 80% equivalent to nearly $230,000.

The next step and the focus of the next iteration would be to examine the organization’s training processes and ensure that the gains from the first iteration could be continued or improved.

To see those results and more on the project, refer to the IJLSS article referenced earlier, written by Dr. Kingsley Reeves and the author of this article: How to build a quality management climate. An Action research project


1. Lewin, K. (1947). Frontiers in group dynamics: Concept, method and reality in social science; social equilibria and social change. Human relations, 1(1), 5-41

2. Susman, G. I., & Evered, R. D. (1978). An assessment of the scientific merits of action research. Administrative science quarterly, 582-603

About the Author

Dr. Tres Bishop is an Engineering Manager for Kaman Aerospace in Jacksonville, FL. He and his team are responsible for continuous improvement activities across three sites in North Florida. Before moving to Kaman, Bishop held positions of increasing responsibility at Comtech Systems, Rockwell Collins, and Harris Corporation.

Bishop earned a degree in IE from the University of Florida, an MBA and MS in Engineering Management Florida Tech, as well as a Doctor of Business Administration from the University of South Florida. He is a LSS Master Black Belt, a Certified Manager of Quality/ Organizational Excellence, and a Certified PMP.

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