Whether You are Talking Lean or Continuous Improvement, Problems are a Gold Mine

Nov. 1, 2011
'They are our opportunity to get better,' says the director of lean enterprise at Greatbatch.

You don't want problems. You want a plant floor or an office or a business process that runs like a well-oiled machine all the time -- in fact you want it to run like a perfectly oiled machine.

That is never going to happen, human nature, equipment and life being what they are. The next best thing, then, is to have an organization fully populated with problem solvers -- better known as a continuous-improvement culture.

"The most powerful thing is to utilize all of your employees as problem solvers and not rely on your one Six Sigma expert or your six lean experts," says Bill Willick, director of lean enterprise at Greatbatch Inc. "The key is to change your culture into a continuous-improvement culture where you're leveraging [everyone] as continuous improvement experts."

Willick leads the lean enterprise center of excellence at Greatbatch Inc., a manufacturer primarily of components for medical devices. During a recent interview with IndustryWeek, he shared some of his philosophies regarding lean and continuous improvement. To begin with, he generally prefers speaking of "continuous improvement" rather than "lean." Lean tools, Six Sigma and general problem solving is what you want to teach the workforce, he explains.

Problems are Good Things

Bill Willick

Willick tells the story of being on the receiving end of some wise advice: No problem is a problem. "If you have no problems, then either you don't see that you have problems or you're hiding problems," Willick says. "Problems are a gold mine. They are our opportunity to get better."

In fact, the director of lean enterprise says a sign that shows you are developing a continuous-improvement culture is when employees are excited about sharing the fact they have a problem, rather than being embarrassed about it. That means not only are they recognizing that "identifying problems is a good thing, not a bad thing," Willick explains, but they also know that public chastisement (or something equally negative) isn't the reward for sharing the problem.

Willick has seen the evolution at his own company. Helping to drive improvement is, obviously, one of the goals of the lean enterprise center of excellence. Early on, however, identifying areas or processes that required help typically came from him or his team having their "antennae up" and seeing issues. Alternatively, an executive leadership team member may have noticed challenges in a certain area and pointed them out.

Where the request for assistance typically didn't come from, however, was the person or process requiring help. That has changed.

Workforce Brings Issues Forward

"As we are evolving, we are getting more pulls naturally from the business owners," Willick says. The evolution has occurred because the workforce not only has seen solutions implemented, but also they recognize the company values them bringing issues to light, he says.

Willick also points out that lean-enterprise center-of-excellence team members don't race in and fix problems once they are identified. Instead, team members work with the manufacturing or business process owners to develop a solution and help as needed as the owners execute the solution.

Central to the process is the PDCA (plan, do, check, act or adjust) improvement cycle.

A Natural Starting Point

Manufacturing is a natural starting point in a lean journey, Willick says. "It is what's closest to the customer. That's where you get immediate payback, and it's also the easiest way to learn and understand lean," he says.

"You can see flow, you can see the waste and you can see value-added versus non-value-added so much easier in the manufacturing process. And as you make improvements, you see the effect of improved quality to the customer, improved on-time delivery and reduced manufacturing costs," he adds.

Manufacturing likely shouldn't be the end of the lean journey, however. Willick says Greatbatch has introduced it in numerous business processes, including sales and accounting.

"It affects the whole organization," he says.

See Also:
Centers of Excellence Help Manufacturers Stay Ahead in the Game

Leading with Lean: At Greatbatch, continuous improvement never takes a back seat.

About the Author

Jill Jusko

Bio: Jill Jusko is executive editor for IndustryWeek. She has been writing about manufacturing operations leadership for more than 20 years. Her coverage spotlights companies that are in pursuit of world-class results in quality, productivity, cost and other benchmarks by implementing the latest continuous improvement and lean/Six-Sigma strategies. Jill also coordinates IndustryWeek’s Best Plants Awards Program, which annually salutes the leading manufacturing facilities in North America.

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