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How to Encourage Greater Employee Involvement in Plant Floor Process Improvements

The main thing that should be in place is a robust supervisor standard work process.

Question: We want to implement a process to encourage greater involvement from employees in suggesting improvements for the factory floor. Do you have any best practices you could share?

Answer: The main thing that should be in place is a robust supervisor standard work process. It should include a “process improvement” question as a reminder to the supervisor to encourage hourly associates’ input during the daily Gemba walks. Many days there will be no input, but it’s still a reminder to the hourly person every day that the leadership values their input. It reinforces the respect that we have for them and their knowledge of the process. To create and sustain this culture requires members of leadership to regularly ask for their help in raising questions and offering their ideas to improve the process.

The kind of questions I always like to ask is something like: “What’s the biggest barrier you face to improving your process?” or “What’s the biggest hassle you deal with while trying to accomplish your day-to-day responsibilities?” You might also ask, “What issues, if any, do you have from your supplying operation in or out of your value stream?” “How can I help?”

These kinds of questions send a strong message that leadership is listening and that they not only are supportive of hourly folks' participation but that the supervisor can also facilitate making things happen, either internal to the value stream or with other plant resources as required. This behavior sends a strong message that “We’re all teammates in our quest to achieve and sustain excellence.”

Beyond what should be normal conversations and an insatiable curiosity within the value streams, some factories still have employee suggestion systems. These typically have a cash payout of some amount for good ideas that get implemented. If it works in your culture, great. My experience, however, has been that most of the suggestions that come to our attention this way do not warrant the assignment of resources—there’s simply no bang for the buck. There’s also a fair amount of administration required and lots of communication necessary (it can become a resource hog) to close the loop with each person for those ideas that won’t be pursued, and why.

My experience is this: More often than not, savings from suggestion systems are negligible; the process is laborious and isn’t supportive of the kind of culture we seek. I’d much rather establish a more real-time assessment where we’re processing and sorting opportunities for improvement right on the shop floor with our people.

My preference always is to establish and sustain an open dialogue that routinely happens every day during the Gemba walks. Each one of these opportunities is another brick in the foundation for building trust and credibility with the hourly workforce. If there’s a minor irritant kind of thing, let’s discuss it within the value stream and empower hourlies to solve the problem themselves wherever possible. If the idea isn’t something we want to support we simply explain why right on the spot, or soon thereafter, making certain that the employee understands and agrees why we won’t pursue it further.

For those ideas that represent significant process improvement and mutual benefit for the employee and the company, the supervisor will help to put the appropriate value stream team together and bring in scarce resources if warranted based on the size of the opportunity and complexity of the work. Some of these ideas will warrant attention and will be activated quickly within the hourly ranks. The person who initiated the idea should always be involved in the problem-solving activity. This further reinforces the culture we seek and helps to enhance their skill set and confidence.

However, if there are more impactful items ahead of their idea, the ideas will be put on a “Parking Lot” list and posted on the value stream communications board. The parking lot keeps the idea visible but also communicates “we aren’t going to work on this right now.” As other projects are served up they will be added to the parking lot in an approximate order of priority for resourcing. (By the way, I recommend A3s only be completed once the idea hits the Top 3 on the parking lot. No need burning a lot of calories on it until it is likely to be activated relatively soon.)

The parking lot process makes it visual and an easy-to-understand, efficient and powerful way to communicate status and to reinforce that management remains open to the improvement idea and that it isn’t being forgotten.

Any time an item comes off the parking lot, it will be for one of two reasons: 1) because we are activating the process improvement team, or 2) the idea is no longer viable and will not be pursued. In the latter case, a conversation with whomever raised the issue will be closed out on the next Gemba walk or sooner. My experience is that if the hourly person has the same facts that management has, they will make the same decision. 

The supervisor’s and value stream manager’s openness, helpfulness and support will create and sustain the honesty and trust proposition every day. These daily interactions are important opportunities to chat “eyeball-to-eyeball” about improvement ideas and to show, by our conduct, the new way we are thinking, working and behaving as leaders.

“If you want something new, you have to stop something old.” -- Peter Drucker

“The world we have created is a product of our thinking; it cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” -- Albert Einstein

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