Effective Continuous Improvement – Are You a Contender or a Pretender?

April 14, 2016

By Dave Goebel, Missouri Enterprise Project Manager

Does your company practice Continuous Improvement effectively or is Continuous Improvement just another program? Is Continuous Improvement part of your company’s DNA or is it just another phrase that appears on coffee mugs and t-shirts? These are the real questions you need to challenge yourself with if you’re serious about running an effective, efficient, cost optimized manufacturing operation that maximizes bottom line profitability. 

You’ve heard it all before, but if you’re like so many manufacturers, you’re probably not practicing it to the level that can really make a difference. I can’t count how many times I’ve gone into a manufacturer to review their Continuous Improvement practices only to find that their dedication is compartmentalized into a sub-unit in the organization that doesn’t really have the power or all-encompassing reach to succeed.  It’s an activity, but not part of their core beliefs. Sounds simple, but the practical reality of effective Continuous Improvement is that it’s tough to instill into your organization’s DNA.

I’ll meet an owner of a manufacturing company and ask, “So, tell me about your Continuous Improvement activities.” “Of course,” he or she will proudly tell me.  “Our production manager, Joe Smith, handles that.  He’s our guy on Lean!”  Ugh.  That simple innocent comment expressed with confidence immediately tells me the company probably doesn’t get it.  You know who’s supposed to “handle” Continuous Improvement?  Everyone in the organization.  And that means everyone, from the owner or CEO, to the shop steward, to the office intern who’s handling menial tasks, and every employee in between.  Continuous Improvement systems have limited effect on a factory’s efficiency if everyone isn’t dedicated to the core principles.   

Effective leadership for Continuous Improvement principles must permeate the entire organization if a manufacturer is going to reap the financial benefits that come with efficiency.  Making Continuous Improvement a part of everyone’s objectives will allow for real process improvement by minimizing waste and improving employee productivity and morale in a team environment…and it will put more money into the company coffers.  That bottom line increase in profitability will be measurable as direct evidence of success.  Through the use of visual management, everyone will know when there’s an important issue, what that issue is, and how the organization is dealing with it.  Everyone’s voice is heard, respected and examined to identify and fix issues.  The company as a whole is acting as a single unit, whether there are 10 employees or 500. Everyone knows what’s being measured and they’re focused on the same objectives. 

Great!  You’ve heard all that before, too, you say?  Well that may well be true, because taking your company from periodic Continuous Improvement projects to living in a Continuous Improvement environment is a total cultural shift, a new paradigm within the DNA of the business, and it doesn’t happen overnight.  It takes top down dedication to fully implement an effective Continuous Improvement program and management at all levels need to make their own DNA shift and learn to “lead” instead of “manage”.  These are subtle but tough nuances in the way an organization’s people think, and that’s the challenge so many company’s fall short of achieving.

In an effective Continuous Improvement environment, top leaders don’t manage from the corner office.  They spend a considerable amount of time on the plant floor observing the activities.  They develop their people and empower them to look for and improve the obstacles that prevent them from reaching their objectives. They listen to constructive input from their reports and implement ideas with merit regardless of who suggested them. Middle managers in turn develop their people, creating more eyes focused on the same mission.  Through this, the equipment operator on the floor can recognize an inefficiency and that information will flow quickly through the organization so the people at the top will know about it, and they’ll know their people are fixing it…and how.  They step in personally only as needed to lead their people when issues warrant their direct intervention.

These changes can’t happen all at once of course.  It’s all about making small improvements on an ongoing basis to realize significant gains over time.  Reducing the cycle time of a production process by 10 seconds may not change your world, but those 10 seconds, combined with other related improvements over time can make a real difference.

All of these concepts are difficult to fully implement, especially when you’re on the inside, in the middle of it.  We all know how true it is that sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees, and that’s why bringing in outside expertise can be so important.  Establishing a relationship with a fully trained and certified Lean Manufacturing expert will bring you an easily measurable return on investment, with the evidence of success apparent in the attitudinal shift of everyone from top level management through the entire workforce, making Continuous Improvement a part of the company DNA, so you’re living it instead of just doing it.