Small Manufacturing Enterprises (SMES) are of major importance to the future economic growth of the European Community. To sustain this role, they need support in defining their specific technological and organizational needs and in finding the right approach to respond to these needs. The main objective of the research described in this article is to develop a supporting methodology for determining the improvement priorities of SMEs through a process similar to the manufacturing strategy formulation. However, the tools and techniques proposed in this paper are of a general nature and need not be restricted to SMEs. The methodology uses Quality Function Deployment (QFD), a product oriented quality technique, to apply a contingency oriented approach to improvement priorities. The essence of the QFD method is to extract the customer needs or desires and then to translate them into technical product quality characteristics. Here, the customers are interviewees from a sample of Small Manufacturing Enterprises. We assume that the manufacturing system improvement needs stem from strategic manufacturing priorities and from concerns that express unsatisfied needs. To propagate the improvement needs from the strategic level to the action level, two QFD oriented matrices were developed. The first matrix was used to define the operating improvement needs of an enterprise while the second was used to determine its improvement priorities. Cluster analysis, a multivariate technique, identified several generic improvement models of the sampled enterprises.