Leading for a Culture of Improvement

The improvement culture in the food industry is weak, because leadership in the food industry has a weak understanding of improvement.

By G. Keith Diepstra, Contributor

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For too many in the food industry, and industry in general, the day-to-day experience of managing a manufacturing plant feels like managed chaos rather than managed improvement.

This chaos is indicative of the absence of certain basic principles. These principles may be flirted with in our various departments or somewhat documented to meet quality management system requirements but they are not really embedded in our culture. They will not be embedded in our culture if they are not embedded in you, the leader.

If quality to you means solely food safety and sanitation, and reliability is your maintenance team functioning more like fire fighters rather than system maintainers, you need to reconsider your views. You need to question whether there is any disciplined problem-solving in your approach to management.

All the lip service in the world to root cause analysis (RCA), or corrective actions, or quality or reliability is meaningless if you don't really understand and create the appropriate expectations for your staff.

When something goes wrong, do you expect to see root cause analysis? Do you expect your subordinate managers to speak this language? Do you understand? Would you know when RCA is appropriate?

One of the signs of an effective leader, identified by Jim Collins in his book "Good to Great," is humility. One of the signs of humility is the willingness to learn and pursue what you don't understand. If you are one of those leaders who believes you can hire understanding when you need it, remember: At some point you become superfluous. Leadership needs to understand the available cure.

You create the expectation of a learning culture in your subordinate leadership by having that behavior in yourself. You engender a culture of disciplined, methodical problem-solving when you expect it in your organization. Your expectation and understanding of quality that prevents defects and reliability that prevents failures are what makes those things happen in your organization.

It is essential that you expect significant failures to be traced back to their root causes, then followed by corrective actions to prevent the recurrence of those failures.

The presence of repeat mechanical, operational or product failures is a good indicator that you have not created this expectation.

Understand what is missing
The best start is getting an organization-level understanding of what goes wrong. A plant-level failure mode and effects analysis provides a quick snapshot of where the pain is. Do you have delivery problems? Product quality problems? Equipment uptime problems? Capability problems? Bottlenecks? Or all of the above? Most organizations can, to some degree, answer yes to all of these and more. However, putting yourself and your team through this exercise is an important step in establishing a culture of disciplined problem-solving and improvement.

This does not require any great expertise. Taking it to the next step and brainstorming possible root causes will guide your initial improvement efforts. This forces challenges into the light.

Corrective actions may be starting a reliability program, implementing a statistical process control system, installing new measurement indicators, establishing standards, chartering improvement teams/projects or tasking a subordinate manager to learn and implement Lean tools.

Understand that no matter what challenge your team faces, somebody somewhere has beat it. A method exists for addressing that challenge, but first you have to identify it.

What is the cure? Is it process optimization (process methodology)? Is it waste reduction (Lean tools)? Uptime (reliability)? Or is it process capability improvement? You need the knowledge to address the challenge. Create the expectation in yourself and/or on your team that you will get it.

Most of the methods and concepts arrayed against the challenges we face are not really complex. The first steps are creating the expectation that the organization can determine ways to conduct a preventive maintenance optimization workshop or a changeover time reduction or a project using Six Sigma methods. All these methods and concepts are available. The motivation to acquire the knowledge must be driven from the top.

Don't fall into the trap of trying to buy your way out of deficiencies. It does no good to spend thousands of dollars to purchase a statistical process control software system along with all the associated hardware if you are not going to implement run rules and manage to capability. It is even more foolish if neither you nor any of your subordinates even understands what that means. Just because you give a paramedic a surgical laser doesn't mean he can remove a brain tumor. The guy selling you the software is not going to ask you for your plan. He just wants the sale.

To eliminate or mitigate one of your challenges, create the expectation that your organization will learn the proper use of a tool before you turn to it. Understanding is the most powerful tool you can acquire.

As a former intelligence analyst, I know the availability of information is not nearly as difficult a challenge as determining the appropriate question to ask.

Fishbone diagram for root cause analysis
The fishbone (Ishikawa) diagram is a tool for brainstorming root causes.

Drive the culture change with teams

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