You don't want problems. You want a plant floor or an office or a business process that runs like a well-oiled machine all the time -- in fact you want it to run like a perfectly oiled machine.

That is never going to happen, human nature, equipment and life being what they are. The next best thing, then, is to have an organization fully populated with problem solvers -- better known as a continuous-improvement culture.

"The most powerful thing is to utilize all of your employees as problem solvers and not rely on your one Six Sigma expert or your six lean experts," says Bill Willick, director of lean enterprise at Greatbatch Inc. "The key is to change your culture into a continuous-improvement culture where you're leveraging [everyone] as continuous improvement experts."

Willick leads the lean enterprise center of excellence at Greatbatch Inc., a manufacturer primarily of components for medical devices. During a recent interview with IndustryWeek, he shared some of his philosophies regarding lean and continuous improvement. To begin with, he generally prefers speaking of "continuous improvement" rather than "lean." Lean tools, Six Sigma and general problem solving is what you want to teach the workforce, he explains.

Problems are Good Things

Bill Willick

Willick tells the story of being on the receiving end of some wise advice: No problem is a problem. "If you have no problems, then either you don't see that you have problems or you're hiding problems," Willick says. "Problems are a gold mine. They are our opportunity to get better."

In fact, the director of lean enterprise says a sign that shows you are developing a continuous-improvement culture is when employees are excited about sharing the fact they have a problem, rather than being embarrassed about it. That means not only are they recognizing that "identifying problems is a good thing, not a bad thing," Willick explains, but they also know that public chastisement (or something equally negative) isn't the reward for sharing the problem.

Willick has seen the evolution at his own company. Helping to drive improvement is, obviously, one of the goals of the lean enterprise center of excellence. Early on, however, identifying areas or processes that required help typically came from him or his team having their "antennae up" and seeing issues. Alternatively, an executive leadership team member may have noticed challenges in a certain area and pointed them out.

Where the request for assistance typically didn't come from, however, was the person or process requiring help. That has changed.