Continuous Improvement: It Is Worth the Effort

By definition, continuous improvement is a journey consisting of a series of changes aimed at making an organization more effective. As everything around us changes, it is important that companies adapt if they are to achieve the goal of offering products and services better, faster and cheaper than anyone else.


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Typically, when a company starts its continuous improvement journey, it tackles the easiest things first to achieve immediate results and generate widespread enthusiasm. Sometimes referred to as picking the low-hanging fruit, these efforts may consist of:
• Cleaning up and improving workplace organization so items can be easily found.
• Changing equipment setup procedures to reduce downtime between jobs.
• Introducing simple checklists to ensure equipment maintenance tasks are completed.
• Relocating equipment to form manufacturing cells that can produce a product or product family completely.
• Changing administrative processes to reduce delays before production begins.
• Focusing on building quality into a process, rather than relying on a series of post-production inspections and tests.
Once actions such as these are completed, there is a tendency for some companies to become complacent as they see themselves being “much better than we used to be.” Yet this misses the main point of “continuous” improvement—the need to keep getting better. Everything that has been accomplished is simply the new benchmark. In a way, the low-hanging fruit represents the things you needed to do just to stay competitive. Often, it is the next level of improvement that will differentiate a company from its competition. The problem is that the next level is harder, and it requires different approaches and widespread employee involvement. There simply is not enough time for a limited number of people in the organization to address all of the improvement opportunities and develop practical and sustainable solutions.
As a first step to reaching the next level, problem-solving responsibility needs to shift from managers, or team leaders, to those actually performing tasks. This requires training in various problem-solving techniques such as cause-and-effect analysis, Pareto charting and structured brainstorming. As more employees feel comfortable using problem-solving techniques, they will be able to identify improvement opportunities and bring about the necessary changes.
Another opportunity for the next level of improvement is the increased application of pull scheduling. Pull scheduling can be defined in many ways, including: replenishing what has been consumed, producing a part only when the next process is ready for it, and even making only what you can use now. Most companies are employing some type of pull system, whether it’s replenishing paper when the number of reams at a copying machine reaches a predetermined level, reordering cutting tool inserts when on-hand levels reach one or two boxes, or releasing paperwork to production shortly before the job is to be run.
The people doing a job are in the best position to make a pull system work effectively, so they need to understand the benefits and how to identify opportunities within their areas for using such a system. Employees need to know how to look at work coming into their areas and work already in the pipeline. Rather than thinking of this work merely in terms of number of pieces on-hand, it should be thought of as number of hours, days or even weeks of work. For example, for an incoming area to have 10,000 pieces means nothing by itself. However, if we know that the department’s work capacity is 1,000 pieces per day, then 10,000 pieces represents 10 days of work. With 10 days of work already in the backlog, it doesn’t make sense to bring more jobs into the area—time would be better spent in the upstream operations making something else.
The increased use of teams with greater levels of responsibility is another next level improvement opportunity. Managers can delegate decisions on how things will be done, who will do them and when things will be done to employees within a team, while still maintaining control of the team’s results. The planning (number of products to be produced per day) and reviewing (actual output per day) processes are still management functions, but the responsibility of executing the plan shifts to the teams. This concept is taking hold in many organizations with successful results. 
The next level of continuous improvement is harder than staying at the current level, yet those who achieve success will reap greater benefits than those who settle for the easy improvements. Although we tend to focus on end results, sometimes what we learn on our continuous-improvement journey can create a foundation for success both today and tomorrow.