Beginning a Continuous Improvement Program

The first step is ensuring that your company is organized enough to support the improvement.


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Companies with CNC machines are constantly looking for ways to improve productivity. For example, I have visited many that are highly interested in reducing setup and cycle times. However, in almost all cases, especially those that are trying to make improvements for the first time, they immediately encounter a roadblock that puts the improvement program on hold: organization.

The first step to continuous improvement is ensuring that your company is organized enough to support the improvement program. Before
you can begin to reduce setup or cycle times, or begin an improvement program of any kind, for that matter, your company must become better organized.

Every task a worker performs is directly affected by a company’s level of organization, and, generally speaking, improving organization will often render the single-largest benefit for the company. The more often a task is performed, of course, the easier it is to justify improving it. Since a company’s level of organization affects every task, it should be very easy to justify whatever it takes to get better organized.

Disorganization is pretty easy to spot. Cluttered work areas, difficult-to-find or lost components, jam-packed drawers and cabinets, perishable components (like inserts) that don’t get replenished, and confused people are but a few obvious symptoms of disorganization. As you walk your shop, take an objective look. Can people easily find the components they need? Are their work areas clean and orderly? Do all often-used handtools have a place, and are they in their place? If you think your company is at all weak in these areas, you must get better organized.

The second step to continuous improvement is directly related to the first: ensuring that people are truly prepared to perform their assigned tasks before they start them. How close you can come to accomplishing this will act as a good gage of how well-organized you are.

Pick a task, any task. Watch your employees perform it. Do they have everything they need as they begin, or do they have to walk away mid-task to get some needed component? Do they walk away several times to retrieve needed items? Do they have to stop somewhere along the way to study or ask questions? Worse, do they have to backtrack, redoing some or all of what they have done so far?

Consider, for example, the task of making a workholding setup. This requires a workholding fixture, the handtools needed to mount it, any instruments (such as a dial indicator) needed to align it and raw material needed to load it. All of these components should be gathered before a person begins the process of making the workholding setup, eliminating the wasted time during the task required to retrieve needed items.

Ideally, this gathering of components will be done while the machine is in production, running a previous job. When the gathering is done off-line, the urgency is substantially reduced; a machine is not sitting idle, waiting on needed components.

In many companies, however, there simply aren’t enough people available to do all the
gathering offline. This means the machine will be down while the gathering is completed, and it probably will be a very skilled and highly paid setup person who does the gathering. This dramatically increases the urgency related to gathering needed components.

To achieve this second step to continuous improvement and ensure that only one trip is required to do all of the gathering related to performing a given task, your company must be organized. The components themselves must be logically organized and stored to minimize gathering time and to make it possible for lesser-skilled workers to do the gathering.

We are assuming, of course, that the person performing the task knows which items he or she will need before beginning the task. This lack of knowledge can explain multiple trips to get needed components. The worker may complete part of the task before realizing the need for some other item—and he or she has to go get it mid-task.

We also are assuming this worker knows how to perform the task. If not, he or she must learn how, which often means interrupting someone (usually a more experienced person) and asking for help. 

Both of these concerns can be handled beforehand through documentation related to the specific task to be accomplished. This documentation must specify the needed components and provide instructions for how to complete the task.

I cannot stress enough how important it is that you first make sure that your company is organized enough to then achieve the second step of making sure that your workers are prepared. Much, if not the majority, of wasted time and duplicated efforts are related to a disorganized environment and employees who are not truly ready to begin their assigned tasks.