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Creation of a Sustainable Continuous Improvement Culture

By Tom Takacs - June 16, 2014

Okay, Plant Manager, you did the research and you are convinced you need to invest informal continuous improvement work to generate the operational cost savings necessary to meet business objectives (see previous blog post here). This morning’s call with your boss didn’t cause you to waver in your resolve, even when it was “suggested,” rather firmly, that you better deliver the results you promised with this CI stuff or he/she would take matters into his/her own hands. You’ve chosen the site champion for the program, you recognize the need to engage all the plant employees in the effort, and you’ve scheduled the planning meeting with your champion to get the process started. So, what next?

A relatively common mistake(s) I have seen manufacturing managers make when they initiate a continuous improvement program is failing to define a set of initial goals and objectives and/or failing to put a plan and, as important, a managing process in place to ensure achievement of those objectives. The establishment of an initial CI management process is, in fact, a necessary first step to successful results. I won’t go into the details here on the design of a managing process. The point is that CI does not consist of a series of Kaizen events or simply require robotically applying the latest “buzz word” concepts of Lean Manufacturing. But, I digress...

Back to the topic at hand, let’s say you succeed in establishing an implementation plan with milestones and objectives that successfully accomplishes the desired short-term results. The major problems have been solved, costs have been reduced, schedules are being met, and everyone’s happy (work with me here, I know it rarely works out this way). The boss is happy and the business is not complaining...much. Everything is great. It’s time to close the project and reallocate resources back to their former jobs. So, why are the operators and mechanics muttering stuff about “another management program of the day but more work for us,” and why are all the improvements that were achieved starting to backslide?

Continuous improvement is not a project. It is a culture change and philosophy that world class manufacturing organizations recognize is the DNA of their operation.

Continuous improvement is not a project. It is a culture change and philosophy that world class manufacturing organizations recognize is the DNA of their operation. While the initial phase of a CI program may include the project-based activities to prove the value, CI doesn’t stop at the completion of short-term improvement objectives (or it’s not really continuous improvement). Done well, the initial CI activities should engage the broader work force, and now that you have their attention, and perhaps their hearts, why stop now?

The next phase of the effort is to merge the CI management process into the daily management of the plant (i.e., the rituals and routines at each level that are used to govern plant operations). On a project timeline, this evolution ought to begin fairly early in the implementation of CI. A simple way to do this is to make CI a regular agenda item for all the various team and leadership meetings, from the shift starters and daily performance review meetings to the weekly and monthly plant leadership sessions. Once CI becomes a routine part of the conversation, it becomes easier to see how CI work directly impacts the operate/maintain environment and therefore needs to be considered within the context of that environment.

While a bit harder to accomplish, establishment of the desired culture requires that CI work becomes part of everyone’s job. Frankly, I struggled with the execution of this concept. It was hard enough to convince my management team of the need, but some operators and mechanics perceived it as just another demand by management on top of the work they did to keep the plant running. It was easy to fall into the trap that CI was reserved for overtime, and thus became a discretionary activity ripe for a cost cut. Once again, a good continuous improvement process and plan needs to incorporate improvement work into a person’s daily activities.

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