Continuous improvement is key to long-term success.

What happens in 10 years when everyone implements lean manufacturing and it's no longer a competitive advantage? While such a day will probably never occur, the question is provocative.

The key to lean success tomorrow starts with continuous improvement today. In fact, if you don't implement a continuous improvement structure, you're wasting your time with any lean manufacturing initiatives.

Continuous improvement is one of the main tenets of lean manufacturing. Unfortunately, it's not a high priority in some organizations. The focus is often on value streams, cellular manufacturing, one-piece flow and material flow.

Although this presents an effective way to transform an organization from mass production to lean manufacturing, there must be a new emphasis placed on continuing to improve the changes that are being made. This leads to a culture of continuous improvement that will become a competitive advantage in the future.

Many manufacturers simply attempt to sustain their improvements. But, sustaining change is not the same thing as continuous improvement. If you sustain the changes that are made, then you can expect the results that you get to decline. That's because your competition is probably not willing to just sustain its position.

There are three ways that manufacturers can foster a culture of continuous improvement:

  • Abandon the "hit and run" method of change.
  • Develop your own continuous improvement team.
  • Implement standard auditing patterns.

Avoid Hit and Run

Kaizen events are a popular way to begin implementing lean systems. However, these events can be counterproductive if they are used incorrectly.

Some organizations call their improvement initiatives kaizen events when they are actually hit-and-run events, where a team is assembled for a certain amount of time to do one project. While this usually takes one week to accomplish, it can vary. However, the problem is not the amount of time it takes to accomplish the project; it is the actual accomplishment of the project.

If an organization is truly implementing a lean manufacturing system, the project should never be complete. But, in hit-and-run events, the team often leaves upon completing the project.

Typically, the project reverts back to its old way within the next couple of months. There is no support for the area after the event is over. In essence, the team develops a new change and throws it over the fence to manufacturing. This can lead to confusion, frustration and anger from the shop floor. As a result, the changes fail to achieve their goal.

To focus on continuous improvement, manufacturers should attempt hit-and-run baby steps, such as:

  • Including members of the area to be changed, along with those from other areas.
  • Developing a 6-month plan for the area. This plan should include a daily visit from someone on the original team to see how the project is progressing and if anything needs to be changed or added.
  • Reconvening the team on a monthly basis at the area.
  • Posting visual records of the changes at the area of change where they can be seen by management, as well as by operators.
  • Developing an environment where communication is strongly encouraged.

Emphasize Team Building

Continuous improvement should be part of everyone's job description and must be taken seriously. Management should develop ways to encourage its importance.

If you are currently in the process of implementing lean manufacturing, you may be freeing up operators. If you're wondering the best way to utilize them, consider creating a continuous improvement team. Despite what some people think, all team members don't need to have engineering degrees.

Operators are the greatest source of process knowledge. They are the individuals who know the assembly process inside and out.

A place on the continuous improvement team should not be permanent. Terms should last only 6 to 12 months. If the continuous improvement team does its job, not only will processes improve, but the knowledge base of the employees will continue to improve. This should lead to a more educated, efficient workforce that serves as a strategic asset to the organization.

To be effective, continuous improvement teams must be run correctly. When developing a team, the following guidelines should be considered:

  • Pick a leader with a good deal of lean knowledge. Often, the leader of this team is the individual who is coordinating many of the lean initiatives in the plant.
  • Provide direction. Though the team members do not necessarily have to have a great deal of lean knowledge, the direction needs to be set by management so that the goals of the team are clear.
  • Remember that the goal of the team is to improve process knowledge. This is an excellent way to train employees in lean manufacturing techniques.
  • Be sure to avoid hit-and-run change. This can often do more harm than good.

Standardize Auditing

What is the No. 1 reason why manufacturers fail to implement lean principles? The answer is simple: Leadership. It's the same reason why a plant is successful.

Leaders ensure that continuous improvement is part of a plant's culture by focusing attention on audits. However, auditing cannot be delegated. Management must go to the plant floor and evaluate the process.

On any successful lean journey, management needs to be closely involved. When management delegates auditing, it sends a message to the workforce that the change is not important.

It's important to explain the purpose of audits. They should not be used as "gotcha" tools that try to catch someone doing something wrong. Audits are used to generate information that can be used for continuous improvement and to check that the systems that have been put in place are still valid.

If you talk to operators, they will usually explain what can be done to improve the process. It is then up to you to improve the process. If you do not improve the process, then the likelihood of the operators telling you anything else is minimal. If you are out on the plant floor, operators will see you and likely talk with you about how to improve the process, thus increasing information flow.

Management must verify that the planning and development of ideas that have been implemented are working. The alternative is to hope that this is happening. "Hope" is used in manufacturing to mean, "If I do not go look, I will not know that it is not working." This type of attitude does not foster a culture of continuous improvement.

Lean manufacturing success depends on leadership being on the plant floor. Leaders should try to organize their day so that they always spend time on the assembly line.

A Continuous Journey

Manufacturers that neglect continuous improvement will either be forced to start over on their lean journey or be forced to go out of business. Continuous improvement is not something that just appears. Organizations do not arrive at a lean manufacturing state; they continually strive to get there.

Engineers and operators are not born with continuous improvement skills. It's a concept that needs to be taught, engrained, nurtured and fostered; it's not something that's hoped for and then forgotten.

Manufacturers must develop an organizational structure that supports continuous improvement. Then, that structure must be engrained in all areas of the organization: sales, purchasing, logistics, R&D and human resources.

Lean manufacturing is a journey, not a destination. It is not lean manufacturing that will be the competitive advantage of the future. Continuous improvement will be the competitive edge, as processes and manufacturing systems become more and more efficient. However, only those organizations that continue to adapt and improve will truly realize how to capitalize on the future.

Special thanks to Dr. Ken Armstrong, a professor of management at the Anderson University Falls School of Business (Anderson, IN), for his assistance in developing this article.