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How to Measure Progress on Your Continuous Improvement Journey

Sept. 28, 2021
Ask the Expert Larry Fast answers your lean leadership and continuous improvement questions.

Question:  “We’re thinking about developing a CI maturity model around our CI program, driving all the plants to develop the skills outlined in the model, with corporate annually coming by and checking progress. The argument against this is that it drives skills development but does not necessarily make the plants better. What do you think?”

Answer: Let us start with adjusting our vocabulary. I do not believe in “driving” people to develop skills. We need to communicate, from the CEO to the shop floor, that leaders must be aligned with the agenda and engaged in developing the processes necessary to be successful. (Of course, the C-Suite and everyone down the line need to walk the talk, not just talk it.)  The senior leaders need training as well, so they understand their roles. This is critical to demonstrate their commitment to change!

Instead of “driving,” we are leading and providing the necessary skills training for all to be successful and meet the needs of the company. We are changing the vocabulary of our leaders and, ultimately, all employees. This is the beginning of the culture change necessary to excel down the road—and culture change is Step 1 on any improvement journey, so let’s start there. You need a plan, and you need to be prepared: Do not expect huge movement in the beginning. It takes time to put the proper education and training in place, find the necessary technical talent, etc. The mindset of continuous improvement is a journey, not a destination. Start by taking baby steps, and accelerate as the learning and the new mindset take over.

The Plan

Develop a checklist of what needs to be done first, e.g., train all leadership, assess the skills present in quality and engineering. If the skills are not present internally, use a consultant short-term to get started with the training. Coincident with that, recruit the skills you need in house and gradually reduce the consultants time until you are self-sufficient. This is a key pacing item.

Evaluate internal systems. Be sure the data infrastructure is robust for data analysis and for pareto-izing the opportunities. More modern equipment provides real-time data that can be used for tracking trends and improving. That said, additional data still must come from legacy MRP systems. You need to be able to draw from that and then use your PCs, machine controllers, quality systems, etc., to manipulate data and identify where the priorities are. Importantly, do not select more projects than you can manage. Resource the opportunities first that impact the bottom line and focus on a small project to get started. As one project is completed, peel off the next highest priority.

The biggest reason companies fail is because the leadership does not have the right mindset to be successful. A bottom-up initiative could implode quickly for lack of understanding and support up front. Coincident with that, the shop-floor supervisors and managers, with the strong leadership of the plant manager and staff, should select projects that will yield quick wins. Be sure to document and dollarize the improvements  Give the senior leadership a taste of what is possible, with the right mindset, by executing project priorities and improving the bottom line. Once you demonstrate the power of CI, and senior executives see the great improvement in the numbers, why would they have reason to stop you?

Tracking Progress

 It’s not clear to me exactly what you mean by a “CI maturity model,” but “corporate coming by once a year to check progress,” is, in my experience, mostly a waste of time and money. Why? Because most times the “reviewers” are not knowledgeable enough to know what they are looking at and cannot add value to the discussion. This is another reason this senior group needs to be trained up. Once they understand the ‘what’ and the ‘why,’ there is hope they will become part of the solution. Otherwise it is just a parade lap, and your people will see right through that.

This statement, “The argument against this is that it drives skills development but does not necessarily make the plants better” is, forgive me, nonsense. It is wrong-headed thinking by all leaders. If the plants do not get better, then leadership needs to look in the mirror and wonder what they are doing wrong. Leaders get what they expect, so be sure your expectations are high enough.

I want to suggest a way to help track progress. At my last employer, as the SVP of operations, I created the material that became my book, The 12 Principles of Manufacturing Excellence, A Leader’s Guide to Achieving and Sustaining Excellence. The CD-ROM that accompanies the book has a comprehensive Manufacturing Excellence Audit (MEA). It was designed to establish a basic understanding of the role of each member of the plant leadership team. It also includes numerous exhibits to assist the plant managers in evaluating progress and guiding what is next.

The MEA includes four stages of manufacturing excellence to track improvements. This is the process used to improve. All 28 plants at my last employer set the baseline and improvement targets for the new year, and those were included in the managers’ annual objectives and appraisals. The first audit became the baseline, and yearly progress was tracked via an annual  audit.

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These annual audits were conducted by a plant manager from a different location. It was a great way for plants to shamelessly steal good ideas from the other plants and share improvement projects where relevant.  It also created the opportunity for the plant managers to get to know each other better. Besides, it was easier (also safer!) to seek help from peers than to have to call the boss.

When plant managers were following the process and improving, they saw me once a year. For those who were not using the process effectively, they got help from the three VPs of manufacturing and members of the VP of quality’s technical and Lean/6Sigma green and black Belts. These were quarterly visits. If, after getting significant help to move the needle on performance, the plants still were not improving, there was often a shake-up in leadership, starting with the plant manager. Why? Because the plant manager is accountable for everything that happens or fails to happen on his/her watch.

Finally, a robust MEA audit for plants in Stages 3 or 4 was a great way for them to be nominated to compete in the IndustryWeek Best Plants in North America competition.  By the time I retired, several of the plants had won “Best Plants” recognition. The celebrations were always held at the plant site and were quite a production by the plant manager’s team and IndustryWeek staff. The factory associates’ faces would light up at receiving the recognition and showed how proud they were of their accomplishments. They were playing a major role in solidifying their futures working in a world-class factory.  There was respect and appreciation that went both ways. They had mastered the process and helped make significant improvements. The culture was imbedded. Now it is time to sustain! The local communities did a great job spreading the word, putting pictures in the local papers.  These visits were quite a celebration.

“The People and the Systems:  If two companies implement the same technical improvements in their factories and one achieves far superior performance, what are the reasons for the difference? This can be attributed to the amount of attention paid to the people and the systems.” --Wickham Skinner

“Even if you are on the right track…if you sit still….you’ll get run over.” --Will Rogers

About the Author

Larry Fast | Founder & President

Larry Fast is founder and president of Pathways to Manufacturing Excellence and a veteran of 35 years in the wire and cable industry. He is the author of "The 12 Principles of Manufacturing Excellence: A Leader's Guide to Achieving and Sustaining Excellence," which was released in 2011 by CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Group, as a Productivity Press book. It was a best seller in its category and a 2nd. Edition was published Sept. 24, 2015. It features a new Chapter 1 on leadership, various updates of anecdotes, and new electronic tools on the accompanying CD. At Belden, where he spent his first 25 years, Fast conceived and implemented a strategy for manufacturing excellence that substantially improved manufacturing quality, service and cost. He is retired from General Cable Corp., which he joined in 1997 to co-lead North American Operations. Fast later was named senior VP of North American Operations and a member of the corporate leadership team. By 2001 the first General Cable plant had won Top 25 recognition as one of the IndustryWeek Best Plants. By 2008, General Cable manufacturing plants had been recognized for 19 awards. Fast holds a bachelor of science degree in management and administration from Indiana University and is a graduate from Earlham College’s Institute for Executive Growth. He also completed the program for management development at the Harvard University School of Business in 1986.

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