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What Signs Indicate That I Am Successfully Building a Continuous Improvement Culture?

When people are intuitively doing the right things without being told, from the top of the organization to the bottom, the culture has been changed.

Questions: 1) What are some signs that indicate I am having success in building a continuous improvement culture? 2) How do we set up a cultural change measuring metric/index for our company? We are in the pharma business.

Answer: Unfortunately, I am unaware of any metrics that directly measure culture change. (I’d love to hear from readers who know otherwise!) That said, I’ll share how I think about culture change and hope you’ll find some useful tips for your business. Let’s start with how I read culture change when walking through a factory or any other business for that matter. The behavior I’m looking to observe is this: people who are intuitively doing the right things without being told. When that behavior exists in the organization from top to bottom the culture has been changed.

Typically, this happens very gradually when a few pioneers step up to the career-long journey to achieve and sustain excellence. They come forward with higher expectations and communicate those expectations to their organization. These bold new ideas must then be followed up with effective and ongoing communications, education and training, and accountability. Ideally this starts at the very top but, in my experience it often starts at lower levels out in the factories.

Previously, we’ve discussed the power of using “pilot” projects in the plants to prove out new processes and behaviors. Pilots allow us to make our mistakes on a small scale, learn from our failures and ultimately create a template for continuous improvement and culture change. With the proper expectations and training from management, employees learn to work together as a team in their value streams or departments. Remember to use only volunteers in the pilot to ensure a successful implementation. You want “can do” mindsets to show the way.

In addition to noteworthy performance improvement, a small grass fire of culture change has been lit. Now you’re ready to move forward with the second value stream to introduce the new thinking and processes plantwide and/or businesswide. Over the years, my experience has been that a successful pilot creates a buzz around the plant. Others are curious about what’s going on with the new cell and how they’ve changed their processes. Most of all, they see the engagement and enthusiasm of those now working differently. There’s a newfound pride in the air. Others want to become a part of it. Typically, it’s only the last 10% to 15% of the people who don’t volunteer and must be assigned for the last area or two. This is make-or-break time for them to either adapt to the new ways or else prepare themselves to seek employment elsewhere.

Fragile Momentum

It’s very sobering but important to remember this: The momentum you create on culture change can be easily derailed. It’s very fragile. If members of leadership lack credibility, it’s a non-starter. If leadership waffles on its own participation and support for creating the new culture, it will ultimately die. This is what most often happens. Leaders must set the example by always making decisions that are best for the enterprise, not for any personal or functional agenda. No surprise here: It’s all about leadership. It’s always all about leadership.

I have been in several plants across North America that have been very successful in creating the culture and the resulting outstanding performance without having strong top-down sponsorship. The local management simply didn’t ask permission, knew it was the right thing to do and proceeded with implementation. The performance improved so much nobody up the line was going to tell them to stop doing what they were doing. These plants were the model for the company and stood ready to assist any other part of the business that had both the interest and the passion. The smart leaders recognized there was a site full of best practices they had access to and they set about internal benchmarking to shamelessly steal these good ideas and apply them in their businesses.

In my book, The 12 Principles of Manufacturing Excellence—A Lean Leader’s Guide to Achieving and Sustaining Excellence, 2nd Edition, I describe the evolution of continuous improvement through four stages. Stage 4 of Principle No. 12 represents a mature culture and is the outcome of a very disciplined, rigorous process that enables Stage 4 performance on principles 1-11. Absent this kind of solid foundation being in place, culture change will be forever elusive.  Here are some excerpts that describe the changes that transpire along the journey:

“Principle No. 12: All managers, supervisors, engineers and other salaried and indirect hourly associates understand that their role is to support the direct labor operator. This is where the value-add happens in a manufacturing business, i.e., the making of the product. All associates in the plant, regardless of their positions, communicate openly and work together to improve all manufacturing principles. All associates are skilled in the use of basic Lean tools to find and eliminate waste with a sense of urgency. When all these conditions are in evidence on the shop floor, then the operator is in control of the process and is delivering value to the customer and the shareholder.”

Stage Summary/Audit Key:

“Manufacturing Principle No. 12

Stage 1:  There is little operator involvement or interest in the facility or its performance. Overall plant performance is poor. Often a “1 person, 1 machine” mentality is evident. Operators are expected to check their brains at the time clock and do what they are told in exchange for a paycheck.

Stage 2: Culture is a topic in the training and communications plans and there is some early evidence of operator involvement, particularly on safety and the start of 5S. Plant performance is on par with their traditional competitors.

Stage 3: Teams of operators (and other support team members) are in place and functional, delivering results and meeting the business plan with consistency. Operators are increasingly involved across Manufacturing Principles 1-11 and are showing good ownership of their new roles. Salaried and hourly indirect associates understand their support roles to the direct labor operators. The use of Lean and Six Sigma tools is evident in the active Lean teams in the plant. All associates communicate openly and are working to solve problems and improve every day. There is a growing sense of urgency to get better.

Stage 4: Operators are an integral part of driving ongoing improvement in the facility. Their teams require very little management intervention. They are data-driven and focused. Communications are so seamless that it is difficult to tell operators from managers.

Associates effectively work in teams to control and improve their processes, deliver quality products on time and improve the skills of their team members. They are customer-focused and dedicated to keeping their commitments to customers, shareholders and co-workers. There is a sense of urgency to continue to get better. There is disciplined, sustained excellence across all Manufacturing Principles. Operators are in control of their processes drawing on technical and other resources as required for support.”

Where are you and your company? How will you proceed to successfully execute a career-long culture change for the business? How will your hiring practices and succession planning be modified to sustain the culture as new people join your company? How many people can you observe, at all levels of the organization, who set the example every day by “intuitively doing the right things without being told?”

“World-class performance begins with world-class trust.” -- Robert “Doc” Hall, author, professor and founding member of the Association for Manufacturing Excellence (AME)

“People in your organizations can cope with the truth, however unpleasant. In fact, they hunger for honesty and inclusion. If you’re straight with them, they’ll help you.” -- Oren Harari, author, Leapfrogging the Competition

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