Continuous Improvement -- Tools are Necessary but Not Sufficient

It is who is choosing and using the tools that makes a lasting difference in your operations.

For your continuous improvement initiatives, tools such as kaizen, kanban, SMED, or 5S are necessary, but they are insufficient to achieve results. Saws cut wood, wrenches tighten bolts, and knives cut food, but carpenters build houses, mechanics fix machinery, and chefs prepare meals. It takes your people at their workstations, using the right tools, to make change happen in your organization to achieve the desired results that will be measurable in your company's financial performance. It's only through people that your problems can be identified, and then your people select the appropriate tools to use in deploying countermeasures to correct them.

Too many organizations try to use centralized control of their improvement process rather than involving the people actually doing the work, and then they wonder why the improvements are not sustainable. How many times do we hear that people are our greatest asset and then find that most of the organization is treated like a mushroom, kept in the dark and uninvolved? Numerous successful continuous-improvement (CI) efforts have proven that most people enjoy being involved in their workplace and being able to contribute to making positive changes in their work to improve quality, cost and delivery. Unfortunately, many organizations don't give their associates the opportunity and don't expect them to contribute to the CI efforts on their own. In all the literature you read about the Toyota Production System (TPS), one of the themes that's always present is the importance of developing people because it is only through the development of people that you can achieve the sustainable CI that is the cornerstone of TPS.

Many companies new to the lean journey use kaizen blitz events or rapid-improvement events to try to make a big change in a short period of time. These are sometimes called kaikaku events and are characterized by cross-functional teams working for multiple days to make a major change to an area of the operation, such as constructing a u-shaped assembly cell. The long-term, sustainable improvements to create enterprise excellence are more often achieved when the work team does mini-kaizens in their own work area without outside direction. These often last only 10 or 15 minutes per session and involve less than 10 people creating a small improvement. When done daily or at least weekly, these small efforts add up quickly to produce substantial results. More importantly, the people actually doing the work perform them, and they are improving their own work process. In order for this to happen, all of the team members must be trained to know the lean tools to apply and how to use them. They also must have the support of management to allow them, working with their team leader, to take the time for these activities and be given the authority to make small changes without a bureaucratic approval process or a central lean office directing their efforts. The most successful CI efforts use a combination of kaikaku, kaizen, and mini-kaizen events to achieve their sustainable improvements.

Tools are necessary, and people need to know how to use them appropriately, but your true success will rely on the people actually doing the work to identify the operational problems and then employ the appropriate tool to develop a counter measure for correction. Just like saws, wrenches and knives, the CI tools of kaizen, kanban, SMED, one-piece flow, TPM, A3 or Production Preparation Process (3P) are worthless without the trained people knowing what tools to use and how to employ them in making sustainable improvement in your enterprise.

Ralph Keller is president of the Association for Manufacturing Excellence, an organization dedicated to cultivating understanding, analysis and exchange of productivity methods and their successful application in the pursuit of excellence. He has been an operations practitioner for the past 35 years.

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