Commit to Continuous Improvement

Originally titled 'Don’t Just Go Through the Motions'

We have many tools and techniques for continuous improvement at our disposal, but they can only help if we commit to making them work.

Many of us are motivated to make things better. Whether it’s finally solving a recurring problem, introducing a new production process that yields a better product, improving customer service levels to really meet customer needs or increasing quality levels on a key product line, we find great satisfaction in taking advantage of improvement opportunities discovered.

Fortunately, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel in our continuous improvement journey. There are proven tools and techniques available to help. If we need to improve workplace organization, we can use the 5S system of sort, set in order, shine, standardize and sustain. Companies that commit to 5S have experienced considerable success in not only getting organized, but in staying organized as well.

If our machine setups take too long and drain our machine capacity, we can employ Single Minute Exchange of Die (SMED) techniques to help identify steps that can be done offline; activities can that be done in parallel; and standardized practices that will lead to better, faster and more consistent setups.

If our equipment is not performing at a rate we require, we can start a Total Productive Maintenance (TPM) program and soon recognize the main causes of downtime, enabling us to plan ways to reduce, or even eliminate, each one. If we find ourselves inundated with inventory, we can introduce pull systems that will limit inventory to levels that can be readily consumed. We can also try reducing batch sizes, or the quantities of items we work on at one time in a process, as it has been shown that there is a direct correlation between large batch sizes and large inventories. 

If we find many delays in our processes caused by employees not having the materials, tools or supplies they need, we can create point-of-use-storage workstations throughout the facility so all employees have what they need (but not too much of it) to do their jobs without having to stop and wait or stop and find. If we are incurring frequent quality problems in key departments, we can explore quality-at-the-source techniques that give people the tools or equipment they need to check their own work as they go, thereby greatly increasing the chance that what they produce is right the first time. 

If we find it is simply taking too long for our products to get through the plant, we can reconfigure equipment into manufacturing cells, or groupings of all the equipment needed to produce our products, so that everything is close together and travel distances are reduced. Just as there is a direct correlation between batch size and inventory levels, there is a similar correlation between manufacturing lead time and the distance a product travels during production.

These are just some of the tools and techniques each of us has at our disposal to use as we see fit. They will help, but only if they are actually put to use. Unfortunately, some well-intentioned people who are probably aware of the value of such tools and techniques never commit the time and effort needed to make them work. They take a half-hearted approach and just “go through the motions” of seeking improvement. In too many cases, these people are in key positions in an organization, and their actions actually can stifle the efforts of their staff and co-workers.

For example, one of these key players may initiate an effort to improve organization in his or her area and promote 5S as the best approach to accomplishing this. He or she may even go as far as holding meetings to explain the importance of a safe, clean, organized workplace in which all unneeded items are removed and there is a place for everything. Yet that is pretty much where the effort ends, as no time is set aside for anyone to clean up and organize the area (due to being extremely busy). A mixed message is sent and employees lose interest (if they aren’t doing it, why should I?). As a result, the supposedly important workplace organization effort never gets off the ground.

Similarly, a SMED event may be held and generate many good ideas for reducing setup time. If the key player simply plays lip service to the ideas, another opportunity for real improvement is wasted. The same can be said for TPM, pull systems, and all of the other tools or techniques discussed in this column. If there is no commitment, there will be no improvement. 

Before beginning any improvement effort, ask yourself if you are really committed to making it work. If not, don’t start, as this is preferable to simply going through the motions.