Continuous improvement begins with an acknowledgement that change is needed to survive and prosper in the marketplace. While the need for change is readily acknowledged on the plant floor and in some portions of middle management, the top echelons, in their rarified perches above the real world, rarely embrace change, even a positive change.
Educating the workforce, from the CEO to the newest plant-floor employee, is critical to change. This process might begin with exposure to more effective processes at a conference, in a magazine or even through casual networking. Regardless of source, education must be followed with comprehensive training that exposes the organization’s critical core to available possibilities. Such training begins the culture change process and produces a core group that can continue the transformation.
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After the initial training, make a thorough assessment of your processes, practices and performance to establish a firm foundation for your future. Evaluate every corporate and operational factor that might limit performance. This objective assessment can be difficult to perform in-house. However, it’s critical and must be completed before moving forward with your continuous improvement process.
Make senior management and the workforce aware that improvements are possible. The environment often conditions most people to believe that change isn’t possible. They believe that “we’re different and our problems can’t be solved.” It’s true that companies are different in terms of products, constraints and competition. But, where it really matters, they’re identical.
The assessment requires discipline and consistency because success of the transition depends on a thorough, complete evaluation. Follow each step and fully document your findings. Hold the tendency to take shortcuts in check. Don’t introduce bias and prejudices regarding your own work and that of other groups.
While justifying a continuous improvement program to management is difficult, convincing the entire workforce is almost impossible. Corporate management has a built-in resistance because few companies can afford to invest money and labor to improve effectiveness.
A concise, detailed program plan is your most important persuasion tool. It must have well-defined return-on-investment milestones, include all stakeholders in the process, list specific tasks and deliverables, have a logical sequence of activities, and clearly define roles and responsibilities. Each task should include a clear definition, a deliverable, assigned responsibility to a specific individual, and a start and end date. In addition, task descriptions should include required tools, skills and support. Change takes at least 18 to 24 months and can be achieved only when at least 28% of the workforce is involved in the development and implementation of the new processes.
Excellence is a seemingly paradoxical requirement of both sustainability and continuous improvement. Sustainability implies standardization and repeatability, while continuous improvement implies change. You avoid the paradox if you realize that excellence isn’t static. The bar is always rising, so sustained peak performance requires continuous improvement.
Micro-processes are individual actions performed along the way, such as how an invoice is processed, how repair parts are stored, and how a work order is closed. Because the founding assumption of the excellence model is that excellent micro-processes result in excellent performance, it’s critical to establish benchmarks for your micro-processes and monitor them to ensure continued excellence.
Excellence isn’t perfection, so sometimes performance falls below acceptable levels. When lapses occur, use systematic root cause analysis to determine why the failure occurred. While monitoring and evaluating the micro-processes, pay attention to ensuring that today’s process is better than yesterday’s and will be better tomorrow. It’s a cultural quality that must be embraced from the top and reinforced throughout the organization. Continuous improvement addresses tomorrow’s problems today.
Envisioning the future is a common exercise that drives continuous improvement. If your organization supports long-term thinking, then it’s easy to implement continuous improvement.
Excellence doesn’t occur by chance, nor does it depend upon superhuman efforts by a select few.
Continuous improvement models generally follow a serial or tiered series of functions, philosophies or processes that must be implemented to assure success. Experience has shown that a serial implementation is not always the right approach. However, it is critical that all transformations start with a foundational level comprised of management support and proactive leadership. This ensures that management commitment is available to prevent the organization’s internal defenses from completely derailing the efforts.
E-mail Contributing Editor R. Keith Mobley, CMRP, MBB, principal consultant at Life Cycle Engineering, at [email protected].