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How To Gain Traction with Your Continuous Improvement Journey

Aug. 3, 2021
…and how to make those gains stick.

In my last article, I addressed five major obstacles that often derail a continuous improvement initiative before it gets out of the gate. In this article, I share how to gain traction for a more vigorous CI journey, and I address specifics required to sustain excellence. As always, the leaders must clearly communicate their commitment and high expectations to achieve and sustain business improvements. Start here.

1. Constancy of purpose and message. Make it clear that “our CI agenda is not the ‘flavor-of-the-month.’ Manufacturing excellence is not in addition to our work. It is our work.”

2.  Nurture those who are highly engaged and who will set the example for coworkers. Let them learn to own it, balanced with a sense of urgency. More than three decades ago, the company I worked for created our first manufacturing cells (now more commonly known as value streams). Our pilot cell was made up of enthusiastic volunteers. We made lots of mistakes but learned a lot about flow, the need to cross-train and how to cope with line balance. Since we were making various colors and sizes of extruded wire and cable, lot sizing, grouping of similar constructions and flow/line balance were critical. Once the cell was operating with much more effectiveness and higher quality, it was time to “put legs on” the process and start more cells across the rest of the plant.

The word spread over this 800,000-square-foot facility that something new and exciting was happening in one of five departments. Employees from other areas visited the pilot cell and heard presentations from the new zealots—machine operators. Soon operators from other areas of the factory asked their supervisors about the plan to cellularize their areas.

The rest is history. We needed to consolidate footprints into u-shaped cells to improve flow, which meant we needed to spend money to move a lot of equipment. Fortunately, senior leadership saw the potential for cost reductions, much improved quality, increased throughput, shorter cycle times, etc., and opened the purse strings for the necessary equipment reconfigurations. At this point, there was no looking back. We simply had to be successful.

3.  Training for managers and supervisors is imperative. In the background of my company’s CI journey, extensive training continued for managers and supervisors who had to get up to speed with new thought processes and behaviors. This training was critical to long-term success as well as for developing the foundation for a mindset adjustment by support groups. These new thought processes were very different from the old paradigm. For example, the new paradigm:

  • Recognizes that cross-functional collaboration and support by all groups is required. Senior leadership sets the tone and expectations.
  • Models the new behaviors, i.e., servant leadership mindset.
  • Eliminates the lack of trust between leadership and lower-level staff and hourlies by addressing trust head on.
  • Provides good feedback and communication, and formalizes the process.
  • Where necessary, expects discipline and is brutally honest about the changes that must be made.
  • Sets goals, meets them and then recognizes and celebrates each milestone of accomplishment!
  • Resets the bar for the next round of improvements.

And Now, Sustaining the Improvements

4.  Maintain/refresh a sense of urgency.

5.  Allow time for change. If your people are engaged, learning and inquisitive, stay the course. Educate, educate, educate. Support, support, support.

6.  Institutionalize standard work and provide timely training.

7.  Continually communicate regarding the alignment of results/goals/discipline.

8.  Develop robust systems. Prioritize the needs to get maximum bang from IT, engineering, etc.

9.  Leaders must create balance between the short-term, quarterly P&L, for example, versus longer-term results. (Unfortunately, public companies are often negligent here and cater to shareholders instead of customers and employees. This in and of itself is a good way to turn the CI process in the wrong direction.)

10. Once the current expectations have been met, be sure to reset new standards and expectations. It’s a never-ending process of CI.

"A leader is someone you’d follow to go somewhere that you wouldn’t go by yourself.”--Joel Barker, author and futurist

"Continuous improvement is not about the things you do well—that’s the work. CI is about removing the things that get in the way of your work.”--Bruce Hamilton

Larry Fast is the author of The 12 Principles of Manufacturing Excellence, A Lean Leader's Guide to Achieving and Sustaining Excellence, 2nd. Edition.

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