Continuous Improvement is Not New

Aug. 9, 2011
It's not continuous improvement if you don't learn from the past; it's just history repeating itself.

While we all like to think that we are the cutting edge of something new and "state-of-the-art," continuous improvement (CI) has been around for some time. It has gone by many names, but working on change for the better in small increments has been around for many years. We should recognize this and try to learn some lessons from the past, so we don't engage in more muda (waste) by relearning through making the same mistakes that others have made before us. I really hate reinventing wheels and find it a very unproductive waste of time and energy.

Lots of folks are "discovering" lean manufacturing and have been jumping into employing lean tools in their operations in the past five to 10 years. Some of the early adopters began their journeys almost 30 years ago. Most of these tools are based on the Toyota Production System that Taiichi Ohno developed more than 60 years ago. He attributes much of the TPS system to lessons he learned from Henry Ford on continuous flow production and from visiting grocery stores in the United States when he was here in the 1950s. Ford, in his book "Today and Tomorrow," attributes much of his continuous-flow production system to his visit to the Amour packing plant in Chicago during the Columbian Exposition in the 1890s. There he saw them disassembling pigs and packing everything but the squeal in a continuous-flow system. So, even though many operations people are just discovering lean, its roots and the basic building-block lessons go back over a hundred years. It can be argued that the roots are even older than that but I don't know if there is documentation for it like there is with Ford and Ohno. There are valuable lessons in the writings of both Ford and Ohno, and you should take the time for you and your team to read their books so you don't make the same mistakes that they have already learned from.

Another area receiving much attention these days is the whole issue of leadership of a CI effort and the importance of the leader in the success or failure of the initiative and the team. Again, this is not a new subject and there is a terrific movie that was made by Twentieth Century Fox back in 1949 that provides valuable lessons on leadership of CI programs. Starring Gregory Peck as General Frank Savage (based on the true story of General Frank Armstrong); it's the story of the 918th bomber group during WWII. Peck took over the "Hard Luck" group when it was a dismal failure with some of the worst metrics in the Army Air Corp at the time, both in mission readiness, casualties and mission success. The movie is called "12 O'Clock High" and is still available on DVD and Blu-Ray disc. It explores the trials, frustrations and interpersonal dynamics of leading a failing team and of turning it into one of the highest-achieving bomber groups during the war. Get a copy of the movie and show it to your CI team. It has been used in many leadership training programs over the years including the Air Force, Navy and many civilian programs. It has become something of a classic in leadership education and well worth the time for you and your team to see it and discuss the lessons to be learned from it.

We don't always take advantage of the trial-and-error experiences of those who have gone before us so we end up learning by doing and making the same mistakes that others have made and learned from. In this information age, there is so much that is easily available that there is no excuse for making the same mistakes as the early adopters. We should make the effort to learn from these pioneers and those that followed before us. That's why you read this magazine, whether in print or online, and spend the time to educate yourself on what others are doing. The same is true for you and your team on your CI initiatives. Learn from your predecessors and use the information age to your advantage.

Ralph Keller is president of the AME Institute and former president of the Association for Manufacturing Excellence.

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