Continuous Improvement -- Silver Bullets Only Exist in Hollywood

It's the slow, steady and continuous pursuit of excellence that wins the competitive race.

I'm dating myself when I say this, but for those of you who remember The Lone Ranger, Tonto and Silver -- the trusty steed -- you'll also remember the famous silver bullets. Unfortunately, these only exist in Hollywood creations, not in the real business world, but I see lots of lean transformations pursuing "silver bullets."

Some people seem to think that continuous improvement is about finding that silver bullet and they engage in multiple kaikaku (radical change) events looking for a quantum leap in performance. Meanwhile, some of the most respected companies in lean manufacturing continue on their steady course of improvement using lots of mini kaizens performed continuously by small teams of value-adding operators right at their work sites.

While it's nice to have some quantum leap improvements from kaikaku events, and sometimes they are absolutely the right thing to do, it's the steady continuous improvement kaizens that will yield lasting performance increases that will stick. It's also the only way to get lasting culture change in the organization and to get everyone's buy-in on "that's how we do things around here."

Kaikaku events often take weeks of planning before they're executed and are usually viewed as management-driven projects that the value-adding operators have little to do with. As a result, the improvements made tend to be short-lived unless they are followed by continuous improvement kaizen events, and the improved process quickly reverts to the old way of doing things. Consequently, the improvements in quality, cost and delivery are lost.

Many companies today have established lean offices or lean implementation coordinators to help their organizations spread lean transformations throughout all aspects of the business. Unfortunately, many of these lean offices are looking for the silver bullets and planning kaikaku events instead of teaching everyone the skills needed for continuous kaizen activities. While it's important to have some training in the tools of lean, like kanban, SMED, TPM, etc., the most important training is teaching people the basic skills of problem-solving in a team environment so that individual work teams can do kaizens in their own work environment without outside help. Management must actively support these activities and empower these teams to make changes without having to jump through formal approval processes.

It's only prudent for there to be some limits on the extent of changes that the teams can make, such as an expense or capital dollar limit, but the teams need to have the approval to proceed on their own within some reasonable dollar constraints. Without this freedom to act independently, the culture of the organization will not change and people will be paralyzed waiting for management approval before taking any action. To make changes in your operations, you want to establish a culture where people ask for forgiveness instead of permission as long as they are doing what their team thinks is best and are within the limits of independent activity that the organization has set.

Like the tortoise and the hare, it's the slow, steady and continuous pursuit of excellence that wins the competitive race, not the flashy sprint that can't be sustained. As you've seen in some of my other columns, my experience has taught me to believe that sustainable improvement requires an organizational culture change. The value-adding associates who are doing the form, fit and function conversions that customers pay for are the most important part of the continuous improvement efforts. They must be respected -- and actively supported -- by management as the experts in the value-adding work they do. Management must remember that they are critical to the sustainability of an organization's lean transformation and its continuous improvement efforts by changing "the way we do things around here."

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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