Continuous improvement is the foundation of many successful companies and the basis for increasing our productivity and ultimately our standard of living. Unfortunately, continuous improvement efforts often get brushed aside by the day-to-day grind of just getting things done.
It’s hard to work on something new when you already have a full-time job. We went through a lean manufacturing transformation during 2008 & 2009 and the results were measurable and outstanding. However, even with our culture and focus, our improvement efforts plateaued for nearly three years. If you are dissatisfied with the status quo, you’re in the majority. Fortunately for us, we were able to get our efforts back on track and continue making improvements again.
It was harder than we thought but after we felt we had made progress, we asked ourselves how we did it. It really started with the first improvement project we undertook after the three year plateau. It started when our team answered these five questions:
1. Does management truly support the initiative?
You would be hard pressed to find a manager or an executive that says he or she does not want to see improvement. Of course they do. Too often however, their actions don’t support their words. For us it was evident that we were not comfortable providing the resources necessary to maintain and truly support initiatives. Let’s face it, improvement initiatives generally require an investment. Not coincidentally, our three year plateau came on the heels of the worst economic conditions any of us had seen in our lifetimes. That uncertainty created fear and fear caused us to either not finish what we started or to not start at all.
When we finally came to understand this, we used that awareness to push through when the project inevitably hit some rough patches.
2. Is our team capable of making this improvement?
During “the great recession,” we lost some talent. As difficult as it was, we had to lay off people and some of them were trained in problem solving, kaizen events and managing improvement projects. When the economy started to recover, we were unable to get back some of the people we had lost. This meant that we either had to train some new people or, in our case, one of our managers needed to lead the project. This wasn’t a capacity issue, it was a talent issue. We then selected some of our newer employees to undergo training.
Without the necessary capability on our team, we were struggling to finish our attempts at improvement.
3. Does our team have the capacity to make this improvement?
The other cause of our underperformance was that we didn’t have the capacity to see projects all the way through. We would start a project when we had excess capacity, but when orders picked up, we would divert those resources back to the day-to-day business of designing and manufacturing. While unintentional, we were only willing to commit resources until the work that paid the bills came in the door. As our business does have some peaks and valleys, we found we were starting projects in the valleys and not finishing them during the peaks. We ultimately fixed this by treating the improvement project the same way we treated new customer orders. We kicked it off, added it to our production and engineering schedules and assigned resources the same way. After implementing this way of treating improvement projects, we adjusted schedules and added capacity as we would with a growth spurt in business. We essentially gave the project the same weight we gave a customer order and, no surprise, we got things done on time.
4. What’s the payback?
Another tool we employed to keep the team focused was calculating the payback. We understood the investment required and we estimated the improvement we were expecting. As this was a small capital investment, we got help from our supplier calculating the dollar value of the improvement expectations. As everyone on the team knew the benefits, they understood the importance of the project. This is also a great exercise to determine which projects make the most sense to pursue first.
5. Is it consistent with what we are trying to accomplish this year?
Many companies, (ours included), establish annual goals. Those goals set the pattern for the improvement objectives that get attention. For example, if your company goals revolved around lowering your carbon footprint and gaining market share, it helps if you can tie your improvements to those two objectives. Everybody likes improving productivity but aligning it with the key company objectives, (whether they’re spoken or unspoken), can have a big impact on whether or not the project gets the resources necessary for completion.
That’s a summary of what we learned coming out of the great recession. Whether you’re trying to get your team back to focusing on improvements or if you’re trying to shift a stagnant culture of limited improvement, we recommend you start with something small and ask these five questions. It may become your competitive advantage.