Making Manufacturing Improvements Stick

The critical factor in making shop-wide improvements is manager participation.


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Ever wonder why some improvements stick, while others seem to achieve short-term gains, but then lose momentum and ultimately fall apart? As someone who strives to help companies make things better, I think about this a lot. There are, indeed, many things that can have an impact on an improvement effort’s success including “real” employment involvement throughout the process: a clear understanding of the improvement’s objectives by all involved; a cross-functional, team-based approach to planning and implementing the improvement; meaningful metrics to show if things have really gotten better; some type of reward for those responsible for a successful outcome; and even recognition of the need to follow up on results and make adjustments when necessary. Whereas all these factors are important, I have found that management participation is a factor critical to making an improvement stick. Participation should not be confused with support. Support can be done remotely and often with little more effort than a few words of encouragement and appreciation. However, participation requires visible, meaningful involvement and a willingness to take on tasks that may not be considered part of a manager’s normal responsibilities. It may even require a manager to leave his or her comfort zone for a time and become a contributing member of the improvement team.

I have witnessed management participation in a variety of improvement efforts. During 5S workplace organization kaizen events, I have seen managers drive fork trucks, cut foam to make shadow boards for tools and supplies, print labels for storage locations and tape floor areas to show what should and should not be stored in specific locations. In machine setup reduction events, I have seen managers observe and ask questions about the steps involved; pre-stage tooling and material; organize setup carts; and complete the steps in a setup process themselves to see things from that perspective. As part of total productive maintenance (TPM) kaizen events, I have seen managers collect data at the machine and use it to determine how often and effectively a machine runs, offer suggestions to simplify routine maintenance tasks and even paint machines to look new. During department relocation efforts, I have seen managers moving furniture, drawers and cabinets. Also, I have seen managers participate in gemba/waste walks every day to review key metrics and listen/respond to employee ideas and needs. None of these actions require an extraordinary level of skill, and they are certainly within the capabilities of most managers, yet they demonstrate to everyone just how important the effort is. As such, these actions carry great weight. 

A manager’s actions speak louder than words. Being part of an improvement team is an action that conveys importance and motivates others.

On the other hand, I have seen managers fear that their direct role in an improvement might intimidate others and dissuade them from offering their own ideas. Such fear is interesting because most managers believe their management style to be more collaborative than authoritative. As such, these managers should be capable of participating and encouraging without dominating and intimidating unless they are more authoritative in practice than they realize. Frequently, without management participation, those charged with making the improvement are unfamiliar with the means to obtain and interpret information, identify needed resources or develop a plan to move forward. There is also a tendency to focus on current problems rather than potential solutions. In fairness, the team tasked with making improvements on their own may not be used to having these responsibilities, which may cause them to struggle.

Management participation in an improvement effort not only demonstrates the importance of that effort but yields the added benefit of managers seeing first-hand how employees handle themselves in situations that may be new to them. As a good manager is always evaluating employees, an improvement effort is an ideal way of uncovering skills that may have gone unseen. Such skills can be cultivated as part of an employee’s ongoing development.

Management participation may not be the sole reason an improvement effort succeeds or fails, but in my experience, it increases the chance of success. A manager’s actions speak louder than words. Being part of an improvement team is an action that conveys importance and motivates others. Everyone is busy, but if a manager can set aside some time to participate in an improvement effort, it will go a long way toward creating an improvement that will stick.