Continuous Improvement -- Don't Allow Problems to be Hidden; They're Jewels

Continuous Improvement -- Don't Allow Problems to be Hidden; They're Jewels

It is incremental continuous improvements that have been made through a process of problem identification and problem-solving that has resulted in the incredible gains that have been made to known technologies and products.

In many organizations today, the people doing the value-adding work for our customers in engineering, production, distribution or any other function that is creating value often try to hide problems so they don't "get in trouble."

Don't allow this to happen in your organization because these problems are your keys to finding the process problems that need repair and are the fuel for your continuous improvement (CI) efforts.

As you should know by now, almost all of the nonconformance issues that arise in an organization are the result of a broken process, not the performance of the people.

In spite of this, the people using the process are often blamed for the nonconformance so there is an incentive to cover up or hide these problems. When that happens, you lose the opportunity to employ your CI tools to find and correct the deficiency in your process.

Why is this important? When you look at the progress that has been made by mankind over the past century, much of it has been the result of improvements in fairly old technology and systems rather than new discoveries. The invention of the internal combustion engine goes back to the mid-1800s, but the engines that power our automobiles today use the same basic technology, just vastly improved.

The same can be said for things like airplanes that still use the basic technology of the Wright brothers or even our continuous flow "lean" manufacturing that can be traced back to the Armour meat-packing operations in Chicago in the late 1800s (according to Henry Ford who is acknowledged to have the first lean manufacturing operation with his Model T plant in Dearborn, Mich., in 1914).

Sure, there have been some game-changing discoveries like the invention of the transistor and other semiconductor devices that have radically changed our world, but even there the continuous-improvement process of the technology has yielded new products that are lighter, smaller, faster, and more reliable.

In his book, "The Innovator's Dilemma," Clayton Christensen documents the continuous improvement in hard-disk technology that put the original inventors of the technology out of the business because they did not keep up with the improvements (the basic technology was still the same) made by start-up competitors.

Look at what has happened to digital computers from the original that took three rooms to house and kilowatts of power to run in 1948 to the much more powerful laptop running on rechargeable batteries that you carry around today. All of these have been the result of CI efforts on an existing, basic technology, not quantum leaps from a new discovery.

It is these incremental continuous improvements that have been made through a process of problem identification and problem-solving that has resulted in the incredible gains that have been made to known technologies and products.

In your operations, the same opportunity exists for you to get your organization involved in problem-solving and CI to your processes and systems to provide more value for your customers at lower costs, but it will never happen without the problems being made visible. In lean manufacturing, we talk about reducing inventory to "lower the rocks" so problems become visible. It's not just inventory that hides problems; it's also our people who hide them if they have been punished for making a mistake caused by a broken process.

They should be encouraged and rewarded for identifying and providing visibility to these process problems. Without them actively involved in helping to expose these issues, you never have the opportunity to do problem-solving and employ your CI programs to arrive at a root cause and permanently correct the process to eliminate the non-conformance.

As the folks who developed the Toyota Production System say, NO problem IS a problem. Business processes will always have problems. It is only through exposing these problems, in any of your business processes, and engaging your people in using your CI tools that you will be able to make the kinds of changes we have seen made to basic technologies and products to give us the automobiles, airplanes, computers, and almost anything else you use, that we have today.

Ralph Keller is president of the Association for Manufacturing Excellence, an organization dedicated to cultivating understanding, analysis and exchange of productivity methods and their successful application in the pursuit of excellence. He has been an operations practitioner for the past 35 years.

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