Employee Involvement in Continuous Improvement

Improvement within a company begins with identifying certain operational measures, and employee ownership of these measures is critical.


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In today’s fast-paced manufacturing environment, improvements need to be identified and implemented as quickly as possible. In fact, in some industries it may mean the difference between profit and loss. Managers play a key role in identifying opportunities for improvement, having the experience and breadth of knowledge about a business, but they cannot do it all. There is simply no way to get around the need to involve all employees in the process of changing and improving things.

Improvement begins with measurement in any, or all, of the major categories of a company’s operation, namely safety, quality, delivery, productivity and cost. Measures convey how a company is doing, which is something every employee of that company wants to know. Measures in these specific categories help to focus everyone’s efforts on the things that matter most. Equally important is that these measures help employees understand the business and their roles in it a little better. 

Whatever measures are targeted, they should be developed, recorded and communicated by the employees who work in those areas. As such, these measures should be based on data that is easily obtained in a timely manner (and probably without the need of a computer). Making employees responsible for managing the measures establishes ownership. Managers also must support the selected measures, and the best way to show support is to spend time reviewing and discussing the measures each day. This can be done in as little as five minutes, but they are likely some of the most important minutes a manager can spend.

So why are effective, employee-owned measures so critical to improvement? There are some inherent benefits, driven by these five steps:

1. Create targets or expectations. We likely have all heard the phrase “what gets measured gets managed.” Setting targets or expectations provides everyone with clarity on performance. If our target is to ship 100 orders per day and we ship 50, underperformance is recognized by the entire organization. Then if we ship 150 orders, everyone knows it was a good day. Over time, targets will indeed drive performance.

2. Track performance. Through collection and displaying of key measures, everyone gains a sense of performance over a period of time. Trends can be identified and comparisons made. There may be a positive correlation (when one measure goes up, the other goes up), a negative correlation (when one measure goes up, the other goes down) or no correlation between selected measures.

3. Analyze performance. Here is where the improvement effort begins to take shape as we gain an understanding of how we are performing in relation to our targets. We will also gain insight as to why some targets are routinely met while we encounter difficulty trying to meet others. Previously unanticipated dependencies, supplier issues, equipment reliability or resource constraints may be revealed during this analysis. 

4. Correct performance. This requires categorizing problems by severity, likely with the help of a Pareto chart, which can separate the “useful many” from the “vital few.” The most severe problems will require further analysis until root causes, not just symptoms, are discovered. Many root-cause tools can be employed, such as the “Five Whys” and cause-and-effect diagrams. As each root cause is identified, appropriate corrective action can be applied, leading to the required performance improvement.

5. Review performance. Measures help to “close the loop” by ensuring solutions deliver the desired results or presenting alternatives if the desired results are not realized. Of course, reviewing performance is continuous. An improvement made today may simply be the starting point for another improvement required in the future. 

Even if the analyzing, correcting and reviewing steps need to be repeated numerous times, their ultimate purpose is to drive measurable improvement in the organization.

Ideally, the employees who own these measures will track, analyze, correct and review performance. However, they may need some help to do this, and this is an area where managers can lend support. Providing some clues as to what the data may mean can help employees contend with a rather difficult performance issue in their particular areas. Often, just a few encouraging words can reinforce the importance of the measures and the employees’ roles in trying to make the operation better. Finally, by simply being available to review the measures with the employees, managers will solidify the employee ownership/manager support model so critical to a meaningful continuous improvement effort in any company.