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
Culture makes the difference long-term. You don't need to hire a Six Sigma black belt to turn every problem into a research project. Incorporating some simple disciplines and a culture that is looking for ways to improve will carry you far.

Team participation is the key to that culture change. People own the solutions they have a part in creating, and they will work to make those changes successful. But your team efforts must be lauded, rewarded and publicized in your organization.

Essential is determining what exactly a team is to do. Few things will frustrate an effort faster than to form a team with unclear guidelines and no accountability. Remember the acronym SMART. A team's guidance must be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound (SMART).

There are two types of teams: perpetual teams and project teams.

A perpetual team is one that has a standing mission focused on improvement. This is an exception to the time-bound requirement. An example of this would be the Maintenance Excellence Team (MET), convened to pursue some of the major reliability considerations. The MET may focus on improving the storeroom processes and condition, maintenance planning and scheduling, preventive maintenance optimization, the computerized maintenance management system and, perhaps, condition monitoring as assigned by the steering committee (another perpetual team).

These teams must regularly report to and be directed by senior management. They are actuating your strategy, so keep them accountable and direct/redirect their efforts when appropriate.
Distinguish between a onetime improvement action, event or workshop (sometimes called a Kaizen event) and a project.

A onetime action is an important tool. In companies with the best improvement cultures, this is where the majority of improvements are found. They are those intuitive or inspired changes that usually come from the people most familiar with the challenges, because they live with them eight hours a day. An important note: Don't let the tendency toward analysis paralysis, usually masked as "fact-based decision-making," keep you from trying these things. Provided they are safe and don't create other problems, if you try 10 and seven fail, you have still profited more than you would have if you had done nothing.

Project or event teams (workshops) are usually convened for three to five days but can be conducted piecemeal for a small period of time over several days. The point is they are action-biased and multi-functional. I typically classify my event teams in one of five categories: general process improvement, changeover reduction (also called "single-minute exchange of dies"), equipment improvement, preventive maintenance optimization, and basic equipment care.

Each one of these teams would need some specific training by your "expert" facilitator at the outset. Training such as process management methodology and waste identification for process optimization or the phases of changeover reduction and delineating/migrating internal and external tasks.

All this information is available on the internet or from other resources, and a reasonably capable manager can become the "expert" in fairly short order if properly directed. Many tools are also available open source. One only needs to look for them.

Project teams are manageable by using three simple principles:

  • Use the Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control (DMAIC) project management method, and its deliverables for each phase, made popular by the Six Sigma movement.
  • Use gate review and approval progression by the team "sponsor" to ensure the requirements of each phase are met.
  • Use a multifunctional team, a leader, a facilitator who has made a minor study of what is needed in each phase, and ensure the team is accountable to a sponsor. The sponsor holds the team accountable to meet the timetable, phase deliverables and the goals.

Again, you don't need to hire a Six Sigma black belt to do this. Any professional familiar with the tools in "Juran's Quality Handbook" could get you through the measure and analysis phases. In most cases, a basic understanding of histograms, root cause analysis and basic statistics will be enough.

Most challenges persist because they never get any deliberate action applied, not because there is no one available with a sophisticated grasp of post-graduate level statistics. You don't need a staff of scientists to solve most manufacturing dilemmas.

All teams, whether event- or project-oriented, should use a charter that lists the following: the problem or challenge that made the team necessary, the business case, the scope of the project (to prevent mission creep), time limits for conduct and actions (to include follow-on), current state or measures that apply, the goal, team members, and a time period to re-evaluate the effectiveness of any actions taken.

The business case should be well established before the team begins. If you and the team know that you are dealing with a challenge that is costing the company $1.5 million a year, you are less likely to balk at a solution that involves a $20,000 capital purchase.

Turtle diagram
The turtle diagram is a simple process mapping tool based on process management concepts that dictate that a process should be defined, monitored, measured, analyzed and improved.

Prioritize the pain
You and your subordinate leadership need to prioritize. If you can't keep your manufacturing lines running 20 percent of the time, there is no point in turning your staff's talent toward reduction in variation of a minor product characteristic that has not created any product quality or safety problems.

Jim Womack in his recent book "Gemba Walks" makes the point you can't improve a process that isn't capable and available. Frankly, you can't improve the capability of a line that isn't available. Finally, you can't improve the availability of a line without improving your reliability system. Therefore, the root cause of bad product quality may be your lack of an effective reliability system.

A word of caution: think strategically. In their infancy, improvement efforts need quick wins to spur and motivate the potential team members.

Put in place measurement that drives behavior. You need to have key performance indicators (KPIs) that drive the behaviors you wish to instill.

For example: If your crew could keep your equipment running eternally without ever doing another preventive maintenance (PM) again, would you care? No, you would not. However, at almost every plant, the KPI most touted for maintenance is the percentage of PM services performed. Any experienced technician could tell you these are pencil whipped. You want uptime, availability. Therefore, that is what you should measure. You can still measure percentage of PM services performed, but availability is the measure that should be tied to goals and performance reviews.

The best measure for any manufacturing facility is overall equipment effectiveness (OEE). This is the best indicator for foundational performance in a manufacturing environment. It addresses quality rate (yield), performance rate (output) and availability rate. These three measures multiplied together give you the OEE rate of the line (or plant). The OEE also can be viewed as capacity utilization. It is very sensitive to changes, both good and bad.

There are an infinite number of possible measures. You and your staff need to start with the behavior or outcome you want to produce and work back to the measure or measures that are best suited to bring about that result.

Persist!
There is an improvement methodology for whatever challenge you are facing.

If a proven method does not take hold for you, you did not have hold of it. Many plants that have tried 5S without understanding the reasons behind it have dropped it, only to lament that, "we tried that Lean stuff and it didn't work here." No. You attempted to implement a single Lean tool. You failed to understand the purpose of 5S is to facilitate speed of location, maintainability, ease of equipment status identification and elimination of travel.

It is not a housekeeping tool. It is a foundation to other improvements, not the be-all and end-all of Lean. You failed to seek true understanding. You need to aspire to the rule of Japanese swordsmanship: Find the way and study it.

As responsible leaders, we have a duty to seek out the best, proven tools for the challenges we face and not "kick the can down the road."

Too often, we promote leaders who cut their way to greatness, leaving the infrastructure damage behind for someone else to clean up once they have their kudos. Someone once said, "Any idiot can use an axe." It takes leadership and persistence to change a culture for the good and bring about true improvement.

Eventually, you may need to call in a consultant, and there is no shame in that. Some of the more sophisticated aspects of setting up a reliability program like Total Productive Maintenance can be daunting. Also, consultants make their living ensuring that there is a good return on investment in using them or they are not in business long.

Bear in mind, much of what consultants do is to train you and your people to recognize the quality and reliability issues and fix them yourself. They create a learning culture will help you better understand the help you need. You don't need to pay $3,000 for a consultant to teach you RCA. You can easily find and learn the methods for yourself.

In conclusion: The food industry here in the U.S. closely mirrors the automotive industry of the 1970s. Having run high on wide margins for a long time with management and executive leadership that is largely cut from the same cloth, our systems have gone unchallenged.

These conditions are going to change. The manufacturing facilities that get ahead of the coming financial turmoil and commodities instability by increasing their efficiencies and reducing waste will be the facilities that are left standing when the turmoil is over.

My hope is that we, as an industry, can preserve our future and one of the few large manufacturing sectors left in the U.S. by bringing on an aggressive culture of improvement. In doing this, we may mitigate "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" for our stakeholders in what promises to be a perilous time.

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