Key Ingredients For Implementing a Successful Continuous Improvement Effort

Greg Flickinger and Ugo Mgbike, of Snyder's-Lance, talk about how to make continuous improvement part of the fabric of your company's culture – not the program of the month.

By Greg Flickinger and Ugo Mgbike, Snyder's-Lance

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For decades, organizations have formalized efforts around Continuous Improvement (CI). Many have spent significant time and effort customizing and re-developing tools and processes that already exist. Programs are often branded with a catchy name to reinforce company ownership followed by pushing the program into the organization with an expectation that people will embrace it and make it their own.

As is typically the case in any change effort, a small fraction of people jump on board believing the concept makes perfect sense, while the masses resist. The harder the organization pushes, the more resistance will be created. Over time, more people will slowly come on board, but many will continue to passively resist. With excessive effort, the program can be pressed into generating savings, but without an intentionally planned cultural change effort, the organization complies only until the pressure is released -- allowing the passive resistors to resume their default work style.

As a result, sustaining improvement is difficult and the effort is at risk of becoming an activity-based program as opposed to a performance-based culture. According to Reut Schwartz-Hebron, founder of the Key Change Institute, "Only 10 percent of the people can adopt lasting new ways of thinking without support and effort focused upon enabling the change process."

Some organizations hire CI professionals or consulting groups to deploy to opportunity areas with the intent of leveraging CI tools to extract value. These efforts often return immediate performance and cash savings, but struggle to sustain these improvements over time. Failure to engage the workforce in shared ownership hinders the adoption of the changes as an owned part of the culture. The gains often will fail to mature and will remain as one-off and specific. Management of the process, which creates compliance, only sustains for a finite period of time before the changes fade at the hands of the large group of resistors, most of whom are passive.

The key to successfully implementing a CI effort is to make it a component of the fabric of the culture. It must become "the way we do our work" as opposed to an organizational program. The approach must be centered upon not just telling or showing, but including and engaging the workforce in the overall effort.

People must be allowed to follow the philosophy and process, but be able to make it their own. Sustained success is often found when CI is approached as a cultural change effort, where the focus is on the people and the CI tools being used as the vehicle to support culture change. Performance becomes an outcome of the effort, not the focus. This concept can be hard for many to grasp and even more difficult to execute. This is especially true when immediate bottom-line results are demanded.

Why CI efforts fail

Let's look at the characteristics that generate an unsustainable CI effort, one that fails to become part of the culture. Many organizations and leaders fall into these traps as good intentions generate contrary and unintended consequences.

Success in application transcends what is generally communicated in the academic approach. CI will become an activity-based program as opposed to a culture when:

  • The process is rigid and must be followed to the letter. Deviation, customization and personalization are not accepted.
  • Extensive paperwork is required. Forms must be filled out completely and posted in a library or database with for others to access.
  • A few highly trained and knowledgeable experts execute the projects, pulling from local knowledge to solve the issues and gain performance.
  • Goals are established requiring a predetermined number of CI tools to be used or a percentage increase in tool use.

The real power behind CI is providing the workforce more effective ways to do their work. Highly structured and well documented processes are clearly desirable, but often fail in execution. The workforce is most adaptable to the new ways of thinking when they are given a level of freedom within a framework.

It is about the philosophy and approach, not the specific task. Often, the well-educated and well-intentioned CI leader's need to be "right" gets in the way of being "effective." If one wants to gain the full value of not only improving but sustaining business performance, the focus must be centered on effectiveness. This means it is about the people and not simply the process or tool.

Early in my career, our plant hosted a routine visit of by one of our company vice presidents. The plant was in the midst of making some very impressive incremental performance gains against the backdrop of strong sustained performance. The technicians (hourly employees) were presenting the performance outcomes they and their teams of peers had achieved. The workforce was fully vested, owning the CI tool use and commensurate results. Many of the CI processes were becoming ingrained in the culture and were becoming the way the teams did their work.

At the conclusion of one of the presentations, the vice president pointed out the tool was not used properly because the standard form was not filled out. Once the form was completed, it would then be considered effective use of the tool. Here was a team that had fully changed not only the way they approached the opportunity, but actually changed the way they thought about solving the situation by making lasting and sustained systemic improvements. But they were deflated by being instructed that the activity was more important than the result. An opportunity was lost to celebrate accomplishments and recognize those who were willing to change, thereby reinforcing the new cultural norm.

There is clearly a place for using structured and regimented process, especially in the early stages of learning and adoption. For instance, as one begins to develop a culture of basic root cause problem-solving using Why-Why or Five Why, people gain educational value on the process by walking through structured forms. At first, the teams may require facilitation and guidance. As time proceeds, teams will begin to leverage the form and facilitate themselves.

Once the thinking and methodology is firmly rooted, people will often begin to troubleshoot and problem-solve by adapting their way of thinking. At this point, it has become the new cultural norm and the form can become a burden, especially for simple to intermediate issues. The structured form may be used or required for certain triggers or for more complex problems, but the everyday use is embedded in the workforce as a new cultural norm.

The real magic of CI is that it is "structured common sense." It teaches people more effective, systematic thought and sequential methods for both simple and complex problem-solving. As CI takes hold and finds application, the approach must change and adapt as the culture changes and adapts.

If the CI effort becomes exclusively focused on the forms and the process, it can quickly become an activity-based program that will in time slowly fade away and give rise to the next branded organization improvement effort. The workforce likes to refer to this as the "program of the month." After a few rotations, they will have learned to "wait it out," making future efforts even more difficult.

Some organizations will go beyond setting pure performance goals and will set goals around specific CI tool use. For instance, a plant may commit to completing five Autonomous Maintenance (AM) projects or increasing the use of Focused Improvement (FI) by 20 percent. The first problem is that goals should not be set to accomplish tasks. Tasks are used to accomplish goals and targets, but the task alone should not qualify as a goal. This approach will have an unintended consequence of incentivizing the task and can quickly spin an organization into an activity based culture.

At a previous organization, I once saw a communication for a promotion of an individual that only contained recognition of increasing activity. The company communication detailed how many more instances of CI tool use the person had created, but never mentioned sustained results in scrap reduction, system performance or dollar savings. The intent of recognizing increased tool use was a good one, but the unintended consequences of recognizing activity over performance reinforced the wrong behaviors across the organization.

The most effective and sustaining use of CI based tools is when the team leverages them to achieve a performance goal or objective. CI tools are key enablers, but should not be the singular goal. Goals and objectives aimed at increasing tool usage will undermine the very program they are meant to build.

This CI effort succeeded

An example of a successful engagement-based CI process application can be drawn from the Snyder's-Lance plant in Burlington, Iowa. The plant leadership deployed CI tools with specific intent to support an improved approach to accomplishing the work. Operators and maintenance personnel were engaged in using CI tools to systematically address manufacturing floor opportunities with a laser focus on processes to decrease production scrap and equipment downtime.

The goal was to leverage the CI process to develop an environment where production employees take ownership of equipment and processes. The leadership understood the focus was a culture transformation of a longstanding, solidly performing organization to an even better-performing organization. The launch was fundamental: conducting a plant-wide total productive maintenance (TPM)-focused deep cleaning training and exercise with the hourly employee groups and their team leaders. The teams learned about Cleaning, Inspection, Lubrication and Tightening (CILT) as standard work practices, which became employee-owned standard practices.

The "how" centered on:

  • Cleaning to expose deterioration and contamination
  • Inspection by visual or measurement to detect defects
  • Lubrication to minimize wear and breakdown due to friction
  • Tightening identified loose parts that can create major problems during production processes

The leadership embedded a robust communication structure to enable reporting of abnormal or defective conditions. Associates were educated on how to not only use but to create daily and weekly assignment work sheets so the organization could effectively track data and generate meaningful key performance indicators (KPIs).

In conjunction with establishing an inclusive process supporting the "how," leadership ensured the "why" was fully understood. Teams were educated on the relationship they would be establishing to increased productivity through decreasing scrap, machine breakdowns and on-the-job accidents. Many associates welcomed the ideas and not only understood but experienced the benefits of successful CILT implementation. The leadership spent the extra time and effort required to engage people in a meaningful way, building not just compliance but true commitment in the form of ownership. People experienced the benefits in their daily work and understood the extended benefits of competitive advantage in the marketplace.

The next step in CI foundation-building was education and implementation of Root Cause Analysis (RCA) and Kaizen. Early successes in Why-Why or 5-Why were facilitated and well supported by leadership allowing ownership transition to the teams. The teams started to execute the process on their own and actually demanded the use of the process whenever faced with manufacturing problems such as line breakdowns or quality issues.

Seeing the value and the impact on the daily operation, the associates pushed to ensure support was available to determine and correct root cause issues in a timely manner. Education on the use of broader scale tools such as Kaizen was also conducted. As momentum continued to build, more and more employees requested inclusion into Kaizen teams.

One of the most significant wins was the use of the 12-Step Kaizen methodology from the Japanese Institute of Preventive Maintenance (JIPM) to solve a six-year chronic performance issue on a major equipment component in the plant's largest throughput line. This February, we formed a cross-functional, associate-based Kaizen team that formed and systematically followed the framework of the 12-Step methodology:

  • Identified losses using the plant, department and line loss trees.
  • Defined the theme and prepared the justification for the Kaizen process on the equipment.
  • Detailed the equipment's principles of operation and prepared a full process line layout
  • Detailed the current situation of the equipment, creating documentation and learning in the form of 5W+2H (what, when, who, where, which, how and how much) and One Point Lessons.
  • Defined goals in terms of gaps between the equipment's actual and ideal situation.
  • Established a hypothetical case framework, using Gant Charts to show planned steps vs. time required for the Kaizen process.
  • Analyzed the equipment's problems with data and sample collection, using an Ishakawa diagram (fishbone) and "Why-Why."
  • Developed countermeasures and action plans to correct the identified problems.
  • Implemented countermeasures based on identified root causes.
  • Checked results, using performance data and KPIs.
  • Developed new standards, established new procedures, established education opportunities and created online preventative maintenance processes and checklists.
  • Developed future plans for replication and identified future opportunities.

At the end of a focused three-day process, the team embarked on step 9, which was the implementation of the countermeasures based on the root causes of the identified problems. The process resulted with the elimination of the long-term chronic equipment problems, contributing to a 61 percent reduction on the total line downtime.

The associates took complete ownership of the process and have taken great pride in the results that have been achieved. Application of the same fundamental and inclusive approach across the facility has contributed to a total scrap reduction of 26 percent, as well as improvements in quality, consumer complaints and service to sales. Improvements are continuing as associate ownership and participation continues to build. Pull has grown to the point that time and resources have become the rate limiting bottleneck. Associates have created the results and now not only believe but understand they can control their performance. They feel a sense of pride and relevancy that is reflected in the plant culture.

Do not lose sight of the objective of CI. The objective is to create continuously improving performance and sustained gains. CI is essentially the playbook. You teach the team how to execute the plays and help them understand the best situations to run each play. The team must execute and adapt each play to the situation at hand. To achieve sustained performance gains, the focus must be on the people. The process is important, but without the people, the process can do nothing.

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