Continuous Process Improvement

Definition: A process is a set of steps to accomplish a defined purpose or produce a defined product or service. Continuous process improvement is the set of on-going systems engineering and management activities used to select, tailor, implement, and assess the processes used to achieve an organization's business goals. Continuous improvement is recognized as a component of modern quality management [1].

Keywords: continuous process improvement, plan-do-check-act cycle, process-based management, process improvement, process model, systems engineering processes


The state-of-the-art in system development management has evolved over the last few decades from basic concepts, practices, techniques, and tools borrowed from other disciplines to a relatively sophisticated suite of training, guided experience, and performance evaluation using structured collections of proven best practices. Experience has shown repeatedly that careful planning, frequent, regular review by trained, qualified people, and meticulous control of product components as they are developed, while not automatically sufficient by themselves, are necessary to defining and fielding a complex product or system today. The technology product and service industry as a whole has attempted numerous times to define, document, and disseminate collections of sound practice and specifications of product quality. These have taken the form of standards, specifications, methods, tools, books, and training and certification programs, among others.

MITRE SE Roles & Expectations: MITRE systems engineers (SEs) are expected to be able to collaborate with sponsors and clients to develop and influence the government's approach to implementing and improving systems engineering processes for the supported acquisition organization.  They are expected to be able to draft policy, develop plans, and conduct maturity assessments for the technical and engineering processes. MITRE systems engineers are expected to be able to collaborate with government and contractor organizations to implement, assess, and improve shared systems engineering processes [1].

A Four-Step Process

Despite the ever changing, ever more sophisticated forms of delivery and media, success in managing the development and operation of complex technology-based systems is still based on a well-executed "plan-do-check-act" cycle. It is founded on the quality control research of mathematician Dr. Walter A. Shewhart conducted in the United States during the 1940s, 50s, and 60s and broadened and elaborated by many others including, most notably, W. Edwards Deming [2, 3, 4, 5].

Simply stated, the cycle is a four-step process used to control product quality during the development process. The steps are to: (1) Plan: determine what needs to be done, when, how, and by whom; (2) Do: carry out the plan, on a small-scale first; (3) Check: analyze the results of carrying out the plan; and (4) Act: take appropriate steps to close the gap between planned and actual results. Then, repeat, starting at Step 1.

"What needs to be done" is often expressed in the form of a process. Systems engineers (SEs) translate the concept of "small-scale first" into producing a prototype, a model, simulation, or mockup, or conducting a pilot project or trial run before producing the full-scale version or initiating production. They build in regular review, measurement, and evaluation of the resulting work products and the plans and processes used to build them. Then they act to take corrective action as deviations from plans and expected results emerge or as potential deviation is predicted based on quantitative analysis of actual results against the background of prior experience.

Process-based Management

This is process-based management. Using a systems engineering process-based approach, planners, project managers, engineers, and other technical staff decompose the work of defining and building large, complex systems into more manageable, repeated cycles of these four steps. Innovators and researchers are still looking for and proposing better approaches but, for now, this is one of best we have found.

Processes may be thought of as generic templates for the components of specific plans. They document the best way an organization knows how to do something. Mature organizations manage and control them as they do other valuable tangible assets. Properly structured, documented processes clearly identify the work product or service to be produced or provided, along with the inputs required, measurements that will be applied to determine compliance and quality, and any specific methods, tools, and training available. Entry and exit criteria indicate the conditions that prompt initiation of the process and those that help to determine when it is finished.

Systems engineers select and sequence individual process descriptions to implement system development life-cycle models and corresponding work breakdown structures and to organize and tailor a technical approach to a particular project's needs and circumstances. If documented processes have been used, measured, and refined repeatedly——that is, if they have been continuously improved——system engineers and cost estimators should be able to ascertain with some degree of confidence how long it will take to perform the processes again with a given set of resources, requirements, and other constraints.

Articles in This Topic

The article Implementing and Improving Systems Engineering Processes for the Acquisition Organization provides guidance on commonly used systems engineering processes available to assist MITRE SEs in developing organizational process policies and plans and conducting maturity assessments. The article emphasizes that effective systems engineering efforts require both the government and contractor organizations to continuously mature and improve processes.

The article Matching Systems Engineering Process Improvement Frameworks/Solutions with Customer Needs provides guidance on working with the government to select and tailor a process model appropriate to the task at hand. The article highlights two important process improvement issues: working on the systems engineering/technology problem, and developing and executing a strategy to orchestrate associated organizational change.

Continuous process improvement is closely associated with quality assurance and viewed by many as an aspect of it. See the Quality Assurance and Measurement topic in this SE Guide for related information.

References & Resources

  1. The MITRE Institute, September 1, 2007 "MITRE Systems Engineering (SE) Competency Model, Version 1," pp. 47–-48.
  2. The Project Management Institute, 2008, A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, (PMBOK Guide), 4th edition, pp. 189–191.
  3. Kerzner, H., 2003, Project Management, Eighth Edition, New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., pp. 761–765.
  4. Shewhart, W. A., 1931, Economic Control of Quality of Manufactured Product, New York: D. Van Nostrand Company.
  5. Demming, W. E., August 2000, Out of the Crisis, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


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