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How to Foster a Culture of Continuous Improvement

Creating an efficient manufacturing process is a difficult and time-consuming undertaking.

Two production line surveyors discussing seriously and gesturing towards a car chassis.

It’s also a continuous process that can take literally hundreds of projects to achieve. Applying principles such as those associated with Lean Six Sigma (LSS) into an operational mindset can take years. Fully implementing some facets of LSS can be too burdensome, especially for smaller operations, but putting your own spin on the philosophy can still yield results. One key benefit is the adoption of an attitude of “continuous improvement” that can help companies of any size realize they can always do better and that everyone is responsible for making that happen.

This philosophy has been around for 30-plus years. It’s well-known in the industry that finding success in your efforts to introduce continuous improvement thinking is all about how employees are empowered to apply the principles themselves.

 

Persuading Your Workforce to Choose Change

One of the biggest obstacles in any implementation is how employees react to the switch to a culture that embraces change. A lot of the literature on LSS dives right into all the principles and assumes that the high-level ideas are all common sense. But you just can’t assume a rollout of this philosophy will go smoothly at a company that’s never embraced it before. You must overcome that “change factor.”

In the Lean world, the key word is “monument,” which refers to any hard-to-move marker of the way things were done in the past. Just like any company can benefit from a continuous improvement mindset, every company also has to deal with monuments; you find them in people, in procedures and processes, and within departments. They don’t want to move. Sometimes you have to work around them, and sometimes you have to find a way to break them open and loosen them up.

 

1. Attack low-hanging fruit first to gain buy-in

If you can show those resistant to change that even small revisions can lead to big results early in your implementation process, they may come on board more quickly. Then they become more willing partners on future projects and become more involved in the process.

Several little things can be done early in the rollout that can make such a big impact. Projects are generally most successful if they make someone’s job easier. For instance, a cumbersome process for how to deal with replacing scrap parts on the floor might involve filling out multiple forms, getting multiple approvals, and coordinating part pulls and inventory adjustments.

When the entire process is laid out and examined, a manufacturer may find several unnecessary bottlenecks that can waste workers’ time in several departments. It’s this process of eliminating unnecessary tasks and reducing waste within a process often makes people’s jobs easier.

It doesn’t have to be an earth-shaking project that gets you started. At first, workers may need to be guided through the process of completing a project. Start with simple projects, and as you gain experience, and people understand they can participate in it and buy into the process, then projects can get larger and larger.

 

2. Empower employees to make and own processes

The great thing about LSS thinking is that there really aren’t any barriers for any company to set up projects to change processes and procedures their particular employees find cumbersome. If there is some aspect of a job that doesn’t make any sense, there’s probably either something that can be fixed within the process or an entirely new and improved process that can be created.

Employees know about their immediate processes, as well as how and what they do affects those processes before and after they’ve played their part. All workers across the company should strive to learn how they impact the big picture and think about how their routine activities affect how they and others do their jobs. This type of critical thinking is essential to find a better way to lay out a process that can affect one or several employees’ job functions.

Physician showing a device to an apprentice

 

3. Don’t limit the scope of what can be improved

One of the big principles of LSS is “5S” – sort, set, shine, standardize and sustain. LSS thinking is a more successful program if you’re able to sustain your successes. In the world of contract manufacturing, companies may have dozens of different jobs working their way through floor at any time, and that number of jobs and the jobs themselves often change rapidly.

The floor requires a degree of cleanliness and space to be able to move things. And when you need to move product or increase throughput to improve Takt times, you have to be able to move material. An operation that’s cluttered, with issues like benches that are too close together, restricts material flow, which slows throughput and makes it more difficult to meet Takt times.

But the scope of any operations project can be wider than just who and what are on the floor at any given time. LSS floor space projects can start when the building is first being designed and should involve employee-led teams. Employee leaders should weigh-in on even the seemingly small details like where lights and benches should be located.

There are some things within a facility that have to be fixed in a certain dedicated place, because of power needs, or pneumatic requirements, or the stationary nature of some machinery. But other factors like material flow, work area shapes, and dozens of other things must be reviewed to make an effective Day 1 plan for the floor. And team leaders should work together to reconfigure and continually reassess how to handle almost everything that isn’t bolted down within the facility.

 

4. Scale what works when you’re ready to do so

When manufacturers start applying this kind of all-for-one philosophy to their production process, they can make improvements not only to the way things are down but also to the scale at which they’re done. If a customer suddenly asks for a massive increase in production to meet their own internal demands, a manufacturer will be better able to meet the increase if LSS standards and techniques and continuous improvement thinking are already in place. When a manufacturing line has been established using LSS techniques, it will be relatively easy to duplicate the production lines to increase throughput to meet Takt times.

With a sustained increase in production output over time (e.g., every week) the gains are clear to see and can lead to overall production gains that can be truly staggering. Manufacturers will only be able to tackle a large project like this after they’ve started ingraining the principles of LSS; once they’ve had the chance to earn buy-in from the entire team, project start-up times can decrease drastically.

 

Once you commit to continuous improvement, prep for the long haul.

Fostering this type of mindset within employees can take months—even years—to take hold and become the prevailing cultural attitude. And people tend to revert to what they know best, especially in crisis situations—which often means they fall back to processes they followed prior to Lean implementations. But employees enjoy working for a company where they’re empowered to have the revelations like, “Why the heck am I writing this report when it’s already in two different places in our database?” That worker may have just eliminated hours of waste per year for several people.

Every employee, in every position, has that moment at some point in time when they’re executing their roles. And that’s the attitude we foster with all employees: If there is a better way or a better idea, bring it up! If it doesn’t work, then try something else! That’s the attitude manufacturers want to project if they want their employees to keep opting in to a continuous improvement mindset.

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