Is It Worth the Effort to Teach Improvement Tools to All Employees?

July 28, 2014
From Dr. W. Edwards Deming’s 14 Points: Put everybody in the company to work to accomplish the transformation. The transformation is everybody’s job.

From Dr. W. Edwards Deming’s 14 Points: Put everybody in the company to work to accomplish the transformation. The transformation is everybody’s job.

Earlier in my career, I had the opportunity to visit the corporate headquarters of a major manufacturing company. The company directory at the entrance revealed a concern that may explain why this particular company’s improvement efforts were struggling.

The directory showed that there was a corporate quality department on one floor and a corporate Six Sigma group on a different floor. There was also a corporate manufacturing engineering group, as well as a lean production system department (and yes, they were in different parts of the building as well). A corporate operational excellence group also was listed.

Imagine the heated discussions that occur when a plant calls asking for corporate help. “Hey! That is a quality problem, we should take the lead.” “No, we need to do a full Six Sigma analysis, we will take the lead!” “Wait a minute! This problem is driving non-value added activity. The lean production group should be in charge!”

Of course, each of these departments will want to take credit for any cost savings that might be realized in order to justify their existence. This is bound to create a lot of confusion and resentment out in the manufacturing locations. The plant leaders would probably think twice before calling the corporate office.

Don’t misunderstand. There is a role that corporate resources can play in assisting a company’s improvement efforts (I led a corporate improvement team for several years). However, the support activities need to be well coordinated and must support and enhance the efforts that are taking place on the shop floor. Otherwise, a belief may develop that improvement ideas and actions must come from corporate “experts” versus getting employees at all levels and functions involved.

"Put everybody in the company to work to accomplish the transformation. The transformation is everybody’s job." Dr. Deming listed this point as the 14th and final point of his list of key principles of running a successful company. I have always thought this point was pretty obvious. However, with all of the emphasis on certifying “experts” and establishing lean and Six Sigma departments, have we lost sight of why this point is critically important?

The following example may help shed light on why this is one of Dr. Deming’s 14 points:

Mary was tired… and bored. Her eyelids felt heavy as she struggled to stay awake. She sat at her assembly station waiting for the production line to start moving again. “Third time this week we have been shut down for an extended period of time,” thought Mary. “And it is only Wednesday.”

She noticed Doug, a manufacturing engineer, walking down the aisle near her station. She had worked with Doug on a couple of project teams.

“Hey, Doug, over here,” she yelled.

“Hey, Mary,” Doug said as he walked over to her station. “You look bored.”

“Yeah… You would look bored too if you had nothing to do but sit in one spot, waiting for who knows how long, for the production line to start back up. Why are we down this time?”

Let's Discuss Root Cause

“You don’t want to know,” Doug said, shaking his head. “A comedy of errors, if you ask me… You know the machine near the end of the line that automatically turns the product we produce over? It has been down for over four hours now. I think they are pretty close to getting it back on line.”

“Another machine has broken down? Seems like that happens a lot and is getting worse,” said Mary.

“Well, this instance is truly embarrassing. First, it took a while to get maintenance support since they are all busy putting fires out in other parts of the plant. They thought the machine quit working because an electric motor burned out. Well, we did not have a spare motor so we had a supplier on the other side of town ship one over here in a taxi. In their haste to get the new motor installed, it was wired wrong and when the power was turned on… puff! A small cloud of smoke came out and that was the end of that motor.”

“Ouch,” said Mary.

“So, another motor was shipped by taxi and this time it was installed correctly. However, it turns out that the problem was not the motor after all. The gearbox, the motor connects to, was the real problem. No one noticed that there was no oil in it, and the gears had ground down to nubs.”

“Let me guess -- we didn’t have any spare gearboxes,” said Mary with a sigh.

“Nope. They had to take one off of another machine we won’t need for a few days. They are installing it now, so we should be back up and running soon,” said Doug.

At about that time, Doug’s boss walked up. “Hey Doug, any idea how much longer until we are back on line?”

“We should be back up and operational within the next 10 minutes or so,” said Doug.

“I am pulling together all of the people who were involved in this mess,” said his boss. “I know you were not personally involved, but I would like you to be there.”

Later that afternoon, Doug’s boss started the meeting to discuss the latest failure when all of a sudden the conference room door flung open and in walked the plant manager. His face was beet red and covered in sweat. Everyone instantly knew he was not there to provide encouragement.

“I hope everyone here knows how bad you made me look today,” he said between deep breaths. “Let me make myself clear. If we have another screw up like the one today, heads will roll! The corporate guys figure that we cost the company over $250,000 in missed shipments and late fees. So they are sending a couple of improvement experts to tell us how to fix this mess. That’s all I need… a couple of corporate goons watching over my shoulder!”

“We will get to the bottom of what happened,” said Doug’s boss.

“You’d better!” said the plant manager. “We also have a problem with our inventory levels. Our warehouse can only hold three hours' worth of inventory. Well, we just uncovered a four-plus hour problem. So, you all better have a plan on my desk by tomorrow morning that shows me how we are going to squeeze two more hours of inventory into our warehouse! We are not going to run out of product again under my watch!”

He then left the conference room and slammed the door so hard, Doug thought it might shatter.

The next day, Doug was walking through the plant and noticed Mary working on something at her station during her break.

“Hey, Mary, what are you working on?” said Doug.

“Oh, nothing much,” said Mary. “I was just trying out a tool we learned in class awhile back called the 5 Whys. You know, the one where you ask the question ‘Why?’ over and over until you get to the root of a problem. I was curious how it would work on the equipment breakdown we had yesterday.”

“Let’s see what you came up with,” said Doug as he started to read what Mary had written. “Why did the machine break down? The gear box failed. Why did the gear box fail? There was no oil. Why was there no oil? The floor is dirty, so no one noticed that all of the oil leaked out and there has not been any preventive maintenance done in the past 12 months. Why is there no preventive maintenance? The maintenance people are too busy to do preventive work, and it is not a priority.”

“Yeah, that captures the problem pretty well,” said Doug. “Let’s put that into a fishbone diagram to show the cause and effect of each issue.

“Seems to me,” said Mary, “in addition to having the correct spare parts, that all we need to do is clean and paint the floor so an oil leak is obvious and maybe have one of the operators check and document the oil level in the gearbox every week. Couldn’t they add a sight glass on the gearbox that shows the level of the oil? Sort of like the ones under the hood of my car that show the levels of the liquids?”

“That seems like a pretty solid plan,” said Doug.

Later that day, Doug was showing his boss what Mary had drawn up when the plant manager unexpectedly walked in and sat down so hard in a chair, Doug thought it might break.

“So, what am I going to tell the corporate guys when they get here about what happened yesterday?” said the plant manager.

“Well, Doug, here has put together a pretty nice summary of what happened and a plan to keep it from happening again,” said Doug’s boss.

“Actually, most of the credit goes to Mary who works on the assembly line,” said Doug.

“Wait a minute,” said the plant manager. “I don’t pay Mary to think. I pay her to work and if she is thinking too much it will slow her down. Plus, I can’t present something that a worker from the shop floor came up with to corporate. She has no credibility since she isn’t a certified expert!”

“Wow,” thought Doug. “Maybe we just found the real root cause of our problems.”

How involved are employees in your improvement efforts? Does every person in your company have a basic working knowledge of process mapping and how it can help identify opportunities for improvement? How about 5S, fishbone diagrams, and failure mode and effects analysis?

No Involvement Without Understanding

Everyone may not need to be a Six Sigma expert, but they do need to understand how variation impacts their process as well as the difference between common cause and special cause variability. It will be significantly more difficult to involve employees if they don’t have an understanding of the tools and don’t recognize the words used to describe the tools.

If employees at all levels and in every function are not involved in some form or fashion, your improvement efforts will be more difficult to implement and probably will be unsustainable. Workers will embrace and own change that they are personally involved with.

The opposite also is true. Some may think it would be easier to work around the employees and force their ideas to be implemented since they are the recognized experts. If this happens in your company, don’t expect the improvements to last much longer than the expert’s direct involvement.

Experts Play Crucial Role

However, there is a critical role “experts” play in the improvement process. It is important to provide structure and focus so that the teams are working on the top priority processes that support the strategic plan and will help improve the overall customer experience.

Workers also need to be exposed to new ideas, best practices, and they need someone to help them knock down barriers and get funding approved. Also, only a limited number of employees need to know advanced tools such as geometrical dimensioning and tolerancing (GD&T).

So, if your company is only relying on a handful of “experts” to implement improvements, don’t be surprised when the improvements are not sustained. Or, if an expert is not provided to support a team and there is no attempt to train or facilitate the team’s efforts, expect minimal impact. In my experience, the best approach is to have one or two experts support the people closest to the process to achieve big improvements that are sustainable and accelerate over time.

On a Personal Note

I had the opportunity to teach a group of machinists how to use the Six Sigma tools to monitor and control their machining processes.  None of these machinists had an engineering degree or a statistical background but they understood the impact of variability. 

After a few days of training and support, they put together their first control charts and could see what was happening with their processes.  They invited me back six months later and were proud of the significant reduction of quality defects their efforts achieved. 

Soon after this presentation, I ended up in the hospital with a bad appendix.  One of my prized possessions is a get well card that the machinists drew up themselves that shows a control chart of my health.  It included an out of control, special cause point of when I entered the hospital. 

Every one of the machinists had signed the card with a note of thanks for believing and having faith in their ability to make improvement happen and taking the time to teach them the tools that allowed them to control their processes.  For me, this best summarized the importance of Dr. Deming’s 14th point.

John Dyer is president of the JD&A – Process Innovation Co. and has 28 years of experience in the field of improving processes. He started his career with General Electric and then worked for Ingersoll-Rand before starting his own consulting company. Dyer can be reached at (704)658-0049 and [email protected]. Linked In Profile: He is on Twitter: @JohnDyerPI

About the Author

John Dyer | President, JD&A – Process Innovation Co.

John Dyer is president of JD&A – Process Innovation Co. and has 32 years of experience in the field of improving processes. He started his career with General Electric and then worked for Ingersoll-Rand before starting his own consulting company.

John is the author of The Façade of Excellence: Defining a New Normal of Leadership, published by Productivity Press. He is a frequent speaker on topics of leadership, continuous improvement, teamwork and culture change, both within and outside the manufacturing industry.

John is a contributing editor for IndustryWeek, and frequently helps judge the annual IndustryWeek Best Plants Awards competition. He also has presented sessions at the annual IW conference.

John has an electrical engineering degree from Tennessee Tech University, as well as an international master's of business from Purdue University and the University of Rouen in France.

He can be reached by telephone at (704) 658-0049 and by email at [email protected]. View his LinkedIn profile here.

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