Engage for continuous improvement!
November 20, 2018 | 8:31 am CST
Before improvement, the door carts were an unbalanced Tetris puzzle, that wasn’t safe or efficient.
It’s time to learn how to discuss your improvements with your team, weigh those improvements against the eight deadly wastes and, what I call, the improvement trident. You want to find creative ways to talk about continuous improvement for two reasons: First, it is important to create a story around the improvements that have been achieved. Since the beginning of time, people have loved stories, especially ones that flatter their individual effort and ingenuity. Stories keep the mind engaged, opening the fast lane to our memory banks. Second, learning requires repetition. But repetition alone can get very boring, fast. Discussing your improvements around a few key principles keeps it interesting while employing repetition to reinforce the learning process. This technique is also going to be the foundation of your morning meeting (more on that later).

Carts show the way

The best way to see how this all works is to walk through an improvement scenario for each. I will share a recent example from my factory involving an improvement to the carts we use to move doors through the production process. We use two different height flat carts. The taller carts would get top-heavy and there was a risk of tipping during the move to shipping. The lower carts had better center of gravity, but they caused our operators to have to bend down with each door stacked. While on a Gemba Walk (that’s just a fancy term for going to see where the work is actually done), we saw it was a challenging task to count the doors on a cart without re-handling them. Also, there was a giant game of Tetris going on to ensure the pile was somewhat stable, as you can see in the before photo. In shipping, an inspector would go through the same laborious process to unstack and check each door. 
The improvement came from one of our process engineers who suggested an L-shaped cart that leaned back slightly. It worked like a charm. We could now lean the doors upright on the cart. No more bending down. Doors were easy to count,  the cart had a low center of gravity, and the process became a simple one-person job.
After the improvements, the carts had a lower center of gravity, allowed for easier stacking and counting, and made the whole process easier for one person to handle.

Telling the story

This is how my shop leader facilitated the discussion around that improvement. First, he gathered the entire team around the work area most effected by the improvement. Then the person who made the improvement was asked to demo the old process, so the group could understand the pain points. Next, the person unveiled the new process. Having people demo their improvements encourages others to get involved and makes lean fun.
With the team assembled for the demonstration, the leader challenged their Lean Thinking skills. Questions to the group included, “Which wastes did you see in the first demo?” Everyone should take part in this process. Responses were: Waste of Motion -- operator bending down to place each door on the cart; Waste of Transportation -- moving the cart from the production line to shipping area; Waste of Over-Processing -- when someone has to de-stack the cart to re-count the order; Waste of Defects -- when a cart tips over and we damage product. 
Involving the entire team ensures that Waste number eight (Wasted employee genius) is included as well. The leader had to press the discussion to draw out a possibility for the Waste of Waiting. As all the other wastes are occurring in the shop, the customer is waiting additional time for the output. I always like to include something from the customer’s perspective to make sure my team stays in touch with what our customers would be thinking if they were watching us.

Improvement trident

How does this example fit the Improvement trident mentioned earlier? First off, let me define the trident. As the name implies, there are three components: safety, quality, and simplicity. I love this one, it gets people thinking about improvements in a whole new light. Discussing improvements from this perspective challenges the team to come up with things that hadn’t been considered initially.
First question to the group, “How did this improvement affect safety?” The responses included, “Safer to move across the shop now that tipping over isn’t possible. Safer for the operator due to better ergonomics. Safer for one person to move a cart around the shop.” After each answer, I am very supportive, if it’s a great observation, it will probably result in a “high five.”
Second, question the group in reference to quality. This is where you can dig deep. It’s not limited to quality of the product, it could be quality of the work space, the air, the environment, the user experience, etc. If anything got better, that should be discussed here and tied to quality. Responses included, “Less damaged product from tipping carts, less damage from doors sliding on each other horizontally, more accurate shipments as its easier to confirm orders are complete, the quality of the customer experience is improved as missing doors are less likely.” I would even go so far as leading the group to understand that with fewer defects, the quality of service to all our customers goes up, as we are spending more time on value-added work and not repairs.
Third question.  “Did the process become simpler?” Answers were, “Yes, counting the doors will be so much easier. They can be set on the carts in any order now, no need to play Tetris.”
So, this improvement is a total winner.  It struck a chord with all three trident criteria. But it’s OK if you only get one or two. It’s still an improvement, so we will happily take it!

More tips

When doing these improvement discussions, I like to offset the two kinds of sessions each day. For example, on Tuesday, we discuss improvements and the eight wastes. Wednesday, we discuss our improvements and the trident. Then back to the eight wastes and so on through the week. This promotes improvements and keeps it engaging to talk about for your team. If you already have an established meeting protocol these techniques can enhance the morning meeting experience and encourage participation.
There is an inevitable fourth result when your team makes the three improvements that are safer, with higher quality and simpler. The process always get faster. But that one, we don’t focus on. The focus should always be to do what is best for the people, profits will quickly become a byproduct of doing the right thing. If you focus on speed, your are likely to get a lot of resistance.
Include these two discussion techniques when talking about your process improvements, and watch the engagement of your team skyrocket.
If you have any questions or would like help talking through anything in this article, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us, after all, that’s what we’re here for! 

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About the author
Brad Cairns | President/Owner/C-Level

Brad Cairns is the senior principal at Quantum Lean and is dedicated to improving the woodworking industry in North America using lean methods. He also owns Best Damn Doors, a cabinet door manufacturing business in St. Thomas, Ontario. You can reach Brad at 519-494-2883 or [email protected].