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What is the Best Way to Begin a Lean or Continuous Improvement Journey?

May 17, 2016
Ask the Expert: Lean Leadership: Have a question about lean leadership? Let Larry Fast tackle it for you.

Question: We are a small company with approximately 150 employees, 3 manufacturing locations and 5 nonwoven processing lines.  The nonwoven process is a continuous-flow process as opposed to assembly. The decision has been made to embark on a lean/continuous-improvement initiative for our company. There is no one in our company who specifically has lean experience. Do you have any advice on the best way to begin this journey? The company is open to using outside consultants.

Answer: First, congratulations to the company's leadership for deciding it's time to embark on a lean/continuous improvement journey for the business.  That's the only way these career-long, continuous improvement journeys to achieve and sustain excellence begin.  They happen only  when a leader stands up and says, "Enough!  We have to get a lot better and that won't happen unless we change." 

Not unlike many other companies who've had this epiphany, this company does not have the resources on staff to launch the journey and their reality check about needing help to get started is a real plus.

I would suggest the following things be pulled together by the senior management team:

  • Create a vision of why this is the time to initiate a new operational direction for  the company's future.  I suspect there are ever-increasing pressures in the global  marketplace for cost reduction, intense international competition on these kinds of products and an overall concern about eroding market share and job security for the employees and the business.  This is the opportunity for senior leaders to stand in front of each facility's workforce and paint the picture of the need for change; and to communicate the path that is being planned for everyone's involvement.  No part of the business gets a pass on this one.  (There must be a compelling business reason to change, which is often referred to as "the Burning Platform.")

  • Create a top down plan to educate and train the workforce of the new expectations for how all must learn to think, work and behave differently for the new strategy to succeed.  Support the need with the necessary resources, e.g. training costs and time, to enable everyone to be successful transitioning to "the new way we're going to do things around here."

  • Early in the process you'll want to get some short-term wins by using a tools training expert to develop a training plan for things such as use of Pareto analysis, 5 Whys, fishbone diagramming, value stream mapping, 5S, kaizen events, etc.  I always recommend starting by getting the supervisors and engineers involved first for these reasons:  1) It causes them to set the example of learning and applying new processes as the leader; 2) It puts them in position to coach and help their people on the shop floor as hourly people begin to be pulled in on specific events or projects.  (Of course, their education and training needs to begin shortly after managers, supervisors and engineers have established a stake-in-the-ground themselves.  Start by using your external trainer to be the leader of the early improvement projects and people on those teams will learn a lot by doing the work while they continue to receive their more formal training.)

  • Based on the burning platform, set bold objectives for improvement.  If you only expect a 5% to 10% improvement, for example, a natural reaction is "I'll work a few extra hours and try harder and I can probably get that done without changing."  Improving our most important business/factory issues requires that our people take "the leap of faith" that the new way of thinking, working and behaving is superior to the old way.  That simply won't happen unless they are challenged and expected to do it.  They will fail otherwise.  One of my former plant managers liked to say,  "We carry our wounded but we shoot the stragglers."  What it meant was that anyone who had their heads in the right place and were working hard to learn the new paradigm had the full support of the leadership, and they would provide additional training, coaching, patience, whatever it took for them to be successful.  If, on the other hand, an employee just wasn't interested in changing -- in learning the new way -- that employee was put through the progressive discipline processes on a fast track to out the door.  No need to waste resources pushing a rope when you can spend the same time coaching up someone who has committed to getting up the learning curve but needs extra help.

In the space we have here I think I'll leave it at that for this time.  But one of the powerful messages that I hope is jumping off the pages for those senior leaders who are contemplating starting the CI journey is this:  Your early persistent leadership and then your ongoing career-long commitment and support are on the critical path to whether anything of long-lasting value ever happens.  You'll get some nice short-term improvements by doing nothing more than training some key people on new, more effective tools for problem-solving.  But it won't transform the business or the culture.

Everyone on the payroll will be watching to see if this is just another flash in the pan before  you're on to the next thing in a year or two or whether your constancy of purpose and your personal "leap of faith" will permeate the rest of the leaders in the company and ultimately result in a companywide culture of CI.  It's a career-long commitment that the CEO and the board of directors are ultimately accountable for.  Should your customers and your workforce trust you on something so important to their futures and the future of the business?

Larry Fast is founder and president ofPathways to Manufacturing Excellenceand 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." A second edition is planned for release in 2015. As Belden’s VP of manufacturing Fast led a transformation of Belden plants in the late '80s and early '90s that included cellularizing about 80% of the company’s equipment around common products and routing, and the use of what is now know as lean tools. Fast is retired from General Cable Corp., which he joined in 1997. As General Cable's senior vice president of operations, Fast launched a manufacturing excellence strategy in 1999. Since the launch of the strategy, there have been 34 General Cable IndustryWeek “Best Plants Finalist awards, including 12 IW Best Plants winners.Fast holds a bachelor's 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.

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