Radical Improvement – A significant change to a process utilizing new technology and/or innovative methodologies that results in an improvement to customer satisfaction so dramatic that demand for the product or service increases.

I can remember the day I shut down a major GE manufacturing plant like it was yesterday. The year was 1988 and I was working as a process engineer on the shop floor of building 5 in Appliance Park where we made refrigerators.

There was a difficult step in the assembly process that generated several quality issues, line stoppages and significant non-value added cost. The cross functional team I was leading was determined to come up with a better process to eliminate all of the hassles this step caused. So, with help from the operators, we researched a new, innovative way to simplify the process and greatly reduce any chance of error. This required a slight design change as well as an entirely new way to perform this operation, including the use of a new piece of equipment.

We followed the Plan-Do-Check-Act methodology and ran several pilots before putting the changes into place. After all of the trials met or exceeded our expectations, the day finally came to make the changes permanent. For five hours, everything went without a hitch. The operators embraced the improvements, the operation was much easier to perform, and the quality issues went away entirely.

Then, disaster struck. All of a sudden, every refrigerator was being rejected and the line had to be shut down. It turns out that if several components happened to be on the highest end of the specification and certain other components were on the lowest end of the specification, a tiny gap would form that allowed the foam insulation to leak resulting in a major need for repair.

The project team quickly worked to put a temporary fix in place so we could get the line back up and running. However, several hours of production had already been lost.

The plant manager was furious. He came out to the shop floor and chewed me out for what seemed like an eternity. Fortunately, my team had my back and explained that if he was going to reprimand me, he had to do the same for each of them as well. That would have been difficult to do since we had representatives from each department as well as a couple of participants who were on the plant manager’s staff.