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Sustainable Operational Excellence Begins One Bite at a Time

A veteran operational excellence leader shares his wisdom for creating a continuous improvement culture that is built to last. Two keys: small, continuous progressive steps and structured analytics.

Raymond Kelly didn't exactly stumble into lean and continuous improvement as a career path, but neither was it was a direction he had strictly planned right from the start of his career. "Partially by accident and partially by necessity" is how his involvement began, explains the director of operational excellence at Welbilt/Frymaster.

"I started doing elements of 'lean' back in the late '70s before it had a specific name. I’d only been out of college for a couple years when I became the manufacturing engineering manager for a global telecommunications company, and I was tasked with making our manufacturing 'better, faster and cheaper,'” Kelly says. "Out of necessity I started looking for ways to streamline our processes by removing unnecessary activities, creating one-piece continuous flow, creating simple illustrated work instructions, point-of-use material kitting and immaculate housekeeping/workspace-organization."

Those trial-and-errors days have long since given way to a structured analytic approach to continuous improvement, elements of which Kelly will share April 2 at Manufacturing & Technology, an IndustryWeek event, in Pittsburgh. His session is titled "Taking Value Stream Mapping to the Gemba." He will discuss several valuable tools to help develop an operational excellence program, including RWBA, or routing-by-walking-around.

During his lengthy career, Kelly has worked in various operational management positions and as a consultant. He also is author of The Myths and Truths of Lean Transformations - How to Successfully Make the Transition from Theory to Effective Deployment.

Kelly recently took some time to address a few questions about operational excellence in advance of his presentation. Here are his responses, which may include some light editing.

IndustryWeek: What is the primary takeaway you hope conference attendees get from your presentation?

Kelly: I hope to expand the awareness of attendees on the importance of structured analytics in their continuous improvement efforts. And I hope to share with them a couple of approaches that I’ve found effective that are probably not widely deployed today.

IndustryWeek: What is the most important consideration for a company or plant when it is embarking on an operational excellence journey?

Kelly: The most important initial consideration is to establish realistic goals and expectations, remembering the often-repeated adage: “It’s a journey not a race.”

I often refer to approaching your operational-excellence journey the same way that you would, theoretically, eat an elephant: one bite at a time. The key is to take a structured approach with small continuous progressive steps (“bites”) to build a sustainable operational-excellence culture. The underlying success of a progressive and rewarding journey is the establishment of a culture that captivates all levels of your organization. An operational-excellence culture must be built around people development, engagement and successes.

A key is taking that first bite. Without that first bite, obviously, you’ll never meet your expectations and receive the rewards of your efforts. So, don’t be intimated by the size of the task, and once you take that first bite, then stay relentless and aggressively drive toward your long-term goals.

Another important consideration for an organization is to ensure that you have a knowledgeable sensei (subject matter expert and leader) to facilitate your journey. Your sensei may be from an internal or external source, but I’d strongly recommend an operational-excellence leader who has a proven track record in achieving sustainable results through the establishment of a holistic operational-excellence culture.

Plan your leadership wisely; don’t rely on chance, trail-and-error, et cetera. Set up an operational-excellence steering committee as a catalyst for your journey.

IndustryWeek: Can a company or plant get too focused on tools? Say, for example, they leap to use a tool before truly understanding the problem they are trying to solve. How do you guard against something like that?

Kelly: Maybe I view “tools” in a different way than what you are perceiving. To me, the “tools” are primarily for analytical purposes; they are what allows you to truly understand the problem, or as I would prefer to state it: to quantify the opportunity. I believe it’s extremely important to define and quantify your baseline before proceeding to solve a problem, or identify and prioritize your opportunities.

I would characterize “lean” tools as a combination of industrial- and quality-engineering tools and techniques combined with a few lean-specific tools/techniques: time observations, process mapping, spaghetti diagraming, A-B-C stratification, pareto-analysis, value stream mapping/analysis, et cetera. And of course, a few tools that I’ll cover in my presentation: routing-by-walking-around, operational analysis, Yamazumi charting and the triple play chart. These tools allow you to establish a baseline of your current ways of working and your targeted future state of working, to quantify the gap between current and future states.

I’m not sure that an organization could overuse or prematurely use the tools, but I would caution on two potential items of concern during the early stages of an improvement initiative:

Scope-creep – letting the scope of your initiative inadvertently expand as you start your analysis (a potentially damaging issue when doing a time-limited kaizen event)

Analysis or data paralysis – when you become too consumed with the analysis and you lose sight of the objective. You want to establish a solid baseline and quantify the problem and/or opportunity, but you don’t need to over analyze the situation. You need to be comfortable enough with your analysis that you can create a representative analysis of the current ways of working, but you don’t need 100% coverage or perfection with your initial analysis.  

IndustryWeek: You wrote a book titled The Myths and Truths of Lean Transformations - How to Successfully Make the Transition from Theory to Effective Deployment. Can you share with us one of the myths and why you consider it a myth?

Kelly: I decided to write my book because I was becoming annoyed with “lean” discussion boards, blogs, et cetera, and the way some folks made lean out to be an exact science that required a superior intellect to successfully implement. That itself contains a couple of myths. I see lean as a fairly boundary-less subject matter with limitless solution options and few defined rules--not an exact science.

The driving principle of lean should be providing maximum value to the customer (better, faster, cheaper) while utilizing the minimum amount of resources possible:

  • the least number of operators (no waiting, no rework, minimal inspection, et cetera)
  • the least amount of space, utilities, et cetera
  • the minimum amount of material (reduce scrap, reduce rejects, minimal or zero inventory)

It sure sounds more commonsense based rather than a highly intellectual, complex set of rules and finite solutions. Now it’s important to be creative and innovative in your application of the lean tools, methodologies and concepts, and the solutions that you derive through your actions, while building on that commonsense-base.

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