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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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.

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