By Dick Kallage, Contributing Writer
Virtually every company I work with has at least some form of continuous improvement (CI) program or initiative in place. Some are
pretty effective. Sadly, most are not, at least in terms
of tangible results. It’s not that managers don’t care
or buy into the notion of CI; they generally do. But,
although they rarely admit it, managers don’t see
the results they were expecting.
At this point many essentially give up on actively
managing the process or put it on the back burner.
They tacitly declare that there is a CI process in
place and if something comes out of it, that’s fine.
But if nothing of real significance occurs, as is usually the case, most tend to quietly move on. Rarely do
managers actually explore why the process is failing
or not living up to its perceived potential.
When I look at CI processes that are either totally
dormant or seriously stalled, I inevitably find elements that are either missing or actually interfering
with the process. I can’t remember a case in which
improvement failed because of lack of culture, talent, or inherent indifference (though I do see many
cases of “trained” indifference; more on that later).
Postulates of Improvement
Let’s review some general postulates. Successful CI-driven companies believe the following statements
to be self-evident truths:
1. The desire to improve things is a human trait
that exists in most of us. What follows necessarily
from this statement is that people tend to improve
their environment and their common welfare if
nothing seriously impedes their efforts. What also
follows is that nearly everyone in an organization is
capable of contributing to improvement.
2. In an organization, improvement is actually
a process. This means that it can be defined, analyzed, and measured. The process is amenable to
improvement itself. This makes CI manageable.
3. The practical improvement potential of any
person or group is bound by the environment—
that is, what they experience and the inherent
breadth and depth of that experience. As we’ll
see, this means that successful CI processes are
layered according to certain variables related to this
environment, span of control, and responsibility.
It’s pretty hard to dispute these assumptions;
they generally ring true. This then would imply that
designing and executing a robust CI process first
must generally satisfy
these postulates. When
we violate them, we can
and do impede success.
As the third postulate
states, successful CI is
bound by an individual
or group’s actual work
experiences, responsibility, or control. It is the
rare CEO who can tell an
experienced welder how
to improve his or her
TIG technique. And it is
the rare welder who can
demonstrate how overall
plant layout is impeding
work flow or quality. Even
if he could, it is doubtful
that he could do anything
about it beyond possibly
his local environment.
So the first task is to layer the process. That is, we
need to bind CI to what a given individual or group
can achieve. This is vital for full employee buy-in
I like a basic three-layer approach. The bottom
layer focuses on improvements in an individual
or group’s local environment: how people do their
work, perform changeovers, and store and move
tools and materials.
To steer this, we must educate people in this layer
on common wastes, such as searching, excessive
motion, bad or confusing information, and removable downtime. Limiting the improvement potential
to a defined number of things almost always results
in CI that matches what people in this layer can actually do. It provides focus and challenge. It works.
Also, if poor quality from the upstream press
brakes limits improvement potential in welding,
then CI must account for departmental or interdepartmental action. In other words, valid CI from this
layer must include improvements at the boundaries—that is, the inputs and outputs: the parts and
information (like work instructions and quality requirements) coming in and going out.
This leads to the second and third layers:
department supervision and company management. These
layers have broader environments and spans of control. They also can resolve interoperation or interde-partment problems and initiate improvements that
involve more than one operation. A supervisor may
find better ways to improve flow velocity through
the operations he or she is responsible for. A senior
manager may initiate a companywide 5S initiative.
Like the bottom layer, these top layers have defined
boundaries set by what the people in this layer have
the authority to accomplish.
This layered approach is one of the common
things missing in stalled CI efforts. There is little focus and essentially no way to manage the process
for results. People come up with suggestions, but
they often are all over the place, difficult to organize
and categorize, and therefore next to impossible to
prioritize and actually execute.
So, do the layering first. People then will naturally
look for improvements they believe are actually
achievable, and they will know where to look for
those improvements. And it’s manageable.
Beyond layering, organizing the CI effort includes
developing standard methods for collecting the
input, categorizing and prioritizing it, and providing feedback and recognition to those initiating the
Read more from Dick Kallage at www.thefabricator.com/author/dick-kallage
How to jump-start a stalled
These key steps help establish
an improvement culture
Executing continuous improvement
cannot be on a when-I-get-around-to-it
basis. Nobody ever “gets around to it.”