You faced many technological and workforce challenges in manufacturing before the pandemic arrived. The subsequent disruptions and rapidly changing environments forced you to not only serve your customers better, but to make processes easier and less frustrating for your employees. The past few years have definitely been a test to see how you can improve your ability to adapt.
Some common traits and practices have emerged from companies that rapidly adapt to the business situations presented to them and even turn them into opportunities. High performing manufacturers that can quickly adapt to changing conditions often share these three characteristics to serve their customers better and strengthen their operations:
- They are constantly looking for breakthroughs and new technology.
- They focus on streamlining data management.
- They practice and fully embrace Kaizen – continuous improvement – at all levels of the organization.
How do you make this leap? You commit to being better at getting better. Improve your continuous improvement systems.
Let’s look at three key mindsets.
1. The Importance of Breakthroughs and New Technology
What amounts to a “breakthrough” varies throughout an organization’s hierarchy. In a simple context, it might be divided like this:
- Upper management: Development or discovery of a new process or product of significant positive impact. Focus and time on this should be high, but the practice of Kaizen in operational aspects is still important.
- Middle managers: Breakthrough process improvement doesn’t have as much time or dedicated focus as daily improvement in key metrics across the operation. Even though managing operations is a key objective, managers still should encourage ideas and input on potential breakthrough ideas.
- Front line/supervisors/associates: More task-specific Kaizen improvement of an incremental nature, but companies need to have systems for getting potential breakthrough ideas encouraged and considered.
Companies should have resources that focus on breakthroughs, especially at the upper management level. What is the next wave of technology that could revolutionize how you produce goods or service your customer? The highest performing clients I work with do not get comfortable with their current state. They constantly research technology solutions and processes. Make this a part of your culture.
Two examples of breakthroughs:
- A client in the industrial laundering sector based its business model on the standard batch size of 500-pound loads. Upon hearing of a small-batch approach in Europe, they visited that site and challenged themselves to see how that approach could reduce waste. They then ran simulations for loads of 50 to 80 pounds, tested it on a small scale, and then switched to a small-batch processing approach. They were able to remove significant non value-added steps from the process, increase through-put, and save time and money.
- A manufacturer that makes restorative dental implants purchased a 3D-printer, believing it could be the next way to process what they do more efficiently. They began experimenting and eventually figured out how to optimize the technology. Now additive manufacturing is part of their core operations.
2. A Focus on Streamlining Data Management
Industry 4.0 has many facets, perhaps none as powerful as how software and connected equipment can be combined to reap the benefits of data. Harnessing that additional data provides potential for continuous improvement and breakthroughs.
The focus on data begins with resources associated with value-added activities and less on data management for tasks that can be automated. Value-stream mapping, which can identify waste, and present opportunities to improve processes and reduce cycle times, can be important in identifying these opportunities.
An example comes from the restorative dental equipment manufacturer. It was able to utilize Robotic Data Automation to convert data from Computer-Aided Design scans to a Computer-Aided Manufacturing program, which eliminated a manual and time consuming step and improved throughput times.
3. Why It’s Crucial to Have a System For Experimentation
Successful manufacturing companies understand that small improvements add up to meaningful impacts, and they empower their employees to do things differently even though they might fail. But they follow a systematic Kaizen approach known as the PDCA methodology:
- Act (Adjust is another term often used with PDCA).
To help manufacturers become more agile, they learn to speed up the PDCA cycles. Formal systems and documentation are recommended to start this process. Kata tools to manage the process and data should be included. PDCA empowers employees and teams to talk about how to try things and to share the results. The experimentation mindset should eventually become instinctive for everyone in the company.
The experimentation mindset is not unlike fishing. If the fish aren’t biting, you can change the bait, move to a different spot, try deeper waters, or adjust many other variables. What is working best? Change quickly and adapt to the conditions presented.
Tangible Signs that Your Company Embraces Continuous Improvement
While continuous improvement principles are indeed a mindset, there are tangible signs when they are evident:
- The principles are part of a daily or weekly check-in, Kata coaching session and/or meeting.
- There is a systematic approach to experimentation and testing, supported by training and encouraged in operations.
- There is visual communication of updated results and metrics for specific initiatives. For larger initiatives, there literally is a sign of progress – a Kata display board to track key projects and metrics for everyone to see.
There also will be indirect signs when a work culture is evolving as success creates curiosity. When an initiative in one department shows visible improvements, people in other departments will ask “who’s next?” and “how can we do that?” Fast followers will help move the pack.
Your Local MEP Center Can Help With a Continuous Improvement Initiative
Many small manufacturers know they have much to gain from undertaking a continuous improvement process, but they struggle with how to carve out the time away from production and the urge to defend how they have done things for so many years. Experts at your local MEP Center can help you get started.
About the author: Ted Theyerl is a Senior Management Engineer who specializes in Lean, CI, Kata, and TWI for the UW-Stout Manufacturing Outreach Center. He is certified to train in all NIST-MEP Lean Manufacturing programs. He can be reached via [email protected] or 715-579-0510.