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Continuous Improvement: The Manufacturing Weapon

May 8, 2014
Nick Pinchuk, president and CEO of Snap-on, wields continuous improvement as a weapon, a weapon against the turbulent manufacturing climate.

Nick Pinchuk, president and CEO of Snap-on (IW 500/271), wields continuous improvement as a weapon, a weapon against the turbulent manufacturing climate, a weapon against the dwindling middle class, and a weapon for the revitalization of manufacturing. 

"Manufacturing is shrinking. We need to fix that," Pinchuk said during his keynote address during the 2014 IW Best Plants Conference at the Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee, Wisc.

He envisions a world in which the American dream is once again about taking pride in earning a comfortable living and supporting your family, not one focused only on creating more doctors and lawyers.

"We've hijacked the American dream and made it something it was never meant to be," Pinchuk said.

Pinchuk suggests leaders turn to continuous improvement, what he referred to as "one of the most important mechanisms" to reinvigorate U.S. manufacturing and to redefine the American dream.

Pinchuk, who for 12 years has worked at Snap-on, identified the four characteristics of a sound continuous improvement system: breadth, depth, importance and pride.

To that end, Snap-on has a full-time continuous improvement employee at every facility, whether it's a factory or an office, and its Milwaukee facility has implemented more than 3,000 continuous improvement initiatives.

Its senior leadership team also annually spends a week on the factory floor at one of its facilities, working to reduce set-up times, get to know the people, increase understanding of continuous improvement, demonstrate to the organization the importance of continuous improvement, and to show pride in the continuous improvement efforts.

'Talk the Walk'

"I say you always have to talk the walk, and that means speak positively about continuous improvement," Pinchuk, a former office in the U.S. Army, said. "In Vietnam, I learned when the debris hits the fan, the people look to the leader. You need to talk the walk and be a certain trumpet or else sometimes continuous improvement does not work."

As a result, in the past seven years, Snap-on has increased its sales from $2.4 billion to more than $3 billion.  

However, continuous improvement still is not easy, riddled with a number of inherent difficulties Pinchuk identifies as: the challenge of choice, the burden of selling, and the value of expectations.

"On your best day, 30% of people think you're a dork, 30% don't agree with you," he said.

That's why it's important to be confident in decisions, to set clear expectations and to "talk to the walk," Pinchuk said.

"We never, ever, ever use the word change. Never. The reason is change has taken on an almost moralistic characteristic and your people know it," he said. "The use of the word change on the rank and file is like a bludgeon."

Change, Pinchuk said, implies that those needing to change are like criminals, being chastised for their wrongdoings.

Rather, using rhetoric of adaptation is more likely to yield positive results.

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