Continuous Improvement -- The Next Manufacturing Craze

Dec. 21, 2004
I could tell you what it is, but then you might not fall for it.

The time is ripe for the next big thing. The precepts stretch back much farther of course, and the period of enlightenment began in the early 1980s, but lean manufacturing in name has been with us since an article by John Krafcik from MIT appeared in the Sloan Management Review in the fall of 1988. That was 16 years ago! Six Sigma, itself the refined reincarnation of some well-known variation-reduction techniques, emerged from Motorola well over a decade ago. With manufacturing company executives flipping through jobs like revolving doors, it's only a matter of time before they latch onto some new solution to all of their woes that they will inflict on their companies in the quest for that fabled competitive advantage. I'm just the guy to give it to them. First, I'll have to decide what to call it. The "World's Greatest Operational Excellence Program" sounds too P.T. Barnum, or perhaps not P.T. Barnum enough. I'm open to suggestions. Whatever I call it, my program will be peppered with foreign words, be they French or Japanese or Swahili. Such words will also tease people with the promise of some deeper meaning that they'll never quite be able to grasp. My new program will apply to any type of operation. I'm no dummy. With U.S. manufacturing shrinking out of existence, I'll need a broad market if I'm going to achieve fame and fortune without too many overseas flights. It will still be applicable to factories of course, but also insurance companies, loan processing facilities, auto dealers, fast-food restaurants, hospitals and -- dare I dream? -- government. Of course I'll need a cadre of proselytizers. People who were "there" in the beginning, who made the pilgrimage, who were burned by the brightness of the light, and who can therefore understand the nuances of my program more deeply, and communicate it with authority. They'll need to know their stuff if we're going to compete with the Johnny-come-lately, "Yes, I'm an expert on that," chameleons who are sure to pop up. I'm looking for volunteers. I'll have to practice being a guru. I pledge to write a book every two years chock full of why-didn't-I-think-of-that insights and practical tips, fill the room at industry conferences with my energy and speak with absolute conviction. I will practice looking like I'm listening, then breaking into that how-could-you-be-such-a-complete-fool expression. My face will carry that stern, slightly puzzled with a trace of a smile look that we seem to equate with wisdom. (Those who know me will say this is my biggest challenge. They'll be the first to get the look.) What about the meat of my program? That's the tricky part. Management ideas follow Darwin's theory of natural selection. There are challenges that aren't being met by the current approaches. New perspectives and solutions are bubbling to the surface that I'll have to ferret out and claim as my own. I'll also throw every operational improvement tool that's still working into my yet-to-be-named bag of tricks. It will be bigger and better than lean and Six Sigma because they'll both be in there. As will Total Quality Management, theory of constraints, management by objectives, employee empowerment, time-based competition, and anything else I can squeeze in. Finally, if I'm going to have any credibility, I'll need a new model of excellence. Everyone's sick of hearing about Toyota. I'm looking for a new company, it could be a manufacturer but it doesn't have to be (preferably one headquartered on a Caribbean island), that I can save with my new words, my team of experts and my sage advice. A company that's a little down on its luck, that offers respectable products and services, and that has good people who want to be better. All they need is the "World's Greatest Operational Excellence Program." Any takers? David Drickhamer is IndustryWeek's Editorial Research Director. He also coordinates the IW Best Plants award program.

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