As a journalist, I make a living asking questions and listening to what people have to say. When I'm visiting manufacturers, one of the first things I ask about is what is their biggest headache. It's never too hard to get people to talk about what wakes them up at 4:30 in the morning, whether it's a 4-week-old baby or a new product launch about to come on line. How people respond to the question often reveals how much process improvement they've made. The responses tend to place manufacturers into four categories:
The Hungry: They haven't yet begun their improvement journey but they know they have to change how they operate. All they're doing now is fighting fires. Market forces may even have pushed them to the brink of survival (at least as a U.S. concern), and they're casting about for ideas and direction.
The Dabblers: They have achieved some success in a few isolated areas. They've hitched their wagons to Six Sigma or lean manufacturing, and they have begun to trumpet their achievements, but a lot of hard work remains before their businesses feel a real impact from their efforts.
The Enlightened: About one in 20 manufacturers is beginning to build some momentum. Here a disciplined operations system has begun to infuse the entire organization, and the culture has begun to embrace change. They've opened Pandora's box; every improvement they make seems to lead to other opportunities. In some areas they've cut floorspace requirements and customer leadtime in half, not once but twice, and they're wondering where it will end. They've also begun to pass on what they've learned to others both within and outside of the organization.
Leading Lights: The top 1% are tooling along like a perfectly balanced workcell; the people are moving in rhythm, nobody's stretching or straining but the productivity and customer service levels -- and profitability -- are unmatched in their industry. People have time to look up at the horizon and gear up for the next market challenge. Such a state can be fleeting. Once established, management's challenge is to nurture it along. I recently posed my standard question to a friend at a widely admired high-tech manufacturing firm where they've integrated suppliers into the ultimate made-to-order business model. Already leading the way in his industry, he told me that his biggest headache now was keeping his people focused on continuous improvement. He defined continuous improvement not in the usual process or cultural sense, but more broadly around the ultimate objectives, to "make things better for customers, employees and shareholders." He said it requires constant innovation, and not only learning, but also developing the ability to learn faster. "This makes life fun and exciting," he added. "Improve, innovate, differentiate and lead people to accept and expect continuous improvement!" The best organizational leaders often answer my question with a question. They're less eager to talk about themselves and more interested in what I might have seen while visiting other companies and what they might be able to learn. If I mention a concept or practice that they are not familiar with, they will start pumping me for details. On this page over the coming months, whether you're hungry for change or well along on your continuous improvement journey, I hope to share what I find. No matter how much progress you make, there's always more to achieve. David Drickhamer is IndustryWeek's Editorial Research Director. He also coordinates the IW Best Plants award program.