Continuous Improvement -- Engaging the Hearts and Minds of Your Employees

The most successful leaders openly respect their staffs and care about their ideas and well being.

At the recent AME conference this past October, the same message was heard over and over again: the need to engage everyone in your organization in order to achieve a sustainable continuous improvement program in your enterprise. Failure to win over the hearts and minds of all of your people will result in less-than-desired results, and will not achieve the sustainable continuous improvement efforts that conditions today demand in order for companies to succeed.

There are countless examples of lean transformations and continuous improvement programs where the gains achieved are not sustained because the hearts and minds of the people in the organization were not captured and engaged in the effort. At the conference, Captain Michael Abrashoff, the author of It's Your Ship, talked about his grass roots leadership that took the USS Benfold from the worst ship in the U.S. Navy's Pacific fleet to the best in two years. How did he accomplish that? He demonstrated every day to the 380-plus sailors and officers of the ship that he cared about them and valued their ideas on the journey to continuously improve the operation of their ship. He found, as have many others, that you can't accomplish this by sitting in your office and issuing orders. He did it using the tried and tested technique of MBWA (Management by Walking About) and engaging everyone on the ship so he knew each one of them personally and demonstrated to them that he cared about them and valued their input.

It takes time and a lot of hard work to win over people who have not been engaged, especially when previous leaders have not respected them, but Captain Abrashoff persevered every day with the same message until everyone on board bought into his program. That's when the improvements were made and sustained.

Office furniture manufacturer Herman Miller Inc. is transforming manufacturing by focusing on two things: the safety of each and every employee by making their jobs less strenuous, and getting everyone involved in satisfying the needs of the customer. As Ken Goodson, executive vice president of operations, explains, the employees come first and what's more, Herman Miller told everyone -- including its customers -- that the people of Herman Miller came first.

Herman Miller has a formal system where it measures every job and rates them on a scale of zero to 10 (with 10 being the most strenuous); the goal is to have every job in the operation a zero. So far, according to Goodson, the company has modified all of the highly strenuous jobs to the point that today nothing is rated higher than a 5, and efforts are ongoing to make these jobs even easier for people to perform. By following this formula, Herman Miller has found that the continuous improvement goals of improved quality, shorter lead times, less inventory, smaller footprint, less capital and higher productivity are all achieved, and the performance numbers of the operations reflect that, both in the factory and in the office.

This focus on engaging the people in an organization by having the top leadership demonstrate every day that they respect everyone and care about their ideas and well being is a recurring theme in successful, sustainable continuous improvement efforts. We have all seen the results of tools-based programs where people are directed, but not engaged, and the lack of sustainability that results. The gains that are made are not captured and quickly erode as people return to their old way of doing things.

Put succinctly, leadership matters, and it's the leaders who demonstrate every day that they respect, value and care about everyone in the organization who are able to achieve sustainable results in their continuous improvement efforts. What kind of leader are you, and will you be able to win in this competitive and difficult global business environment we operate in?

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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