Getting Back to Basics

Find your mistakes and learn from them.


By Tom Dossenbach


In response to recent reader inquiries about Continuous Improvement, I feel many manufacturers need encouragement to stop looking at this as some sophisticated management system for the rich and famous. It matters not that you are a small shop making kitchen cabinets, a supplier of parts to the industry, a millwork company or a Fortune 500 company. Continuous improvement is for everyone.

You have heard a lot about Kaizen ("Good Change" or "Continuous Improvement") over the past decade. The Japanese have been given the credit for this movement, but actually Dr. W. Edwards Demming initiated much of the philosophy while assisting the rebuilding of Japanese industry following World War II. But regardless of what you call it, there are two important axioms to bear in mind:

1. Continuous Improvement efforts, applied diligently, will generate positive results -- certain!

2. Defiance of Continuous Improvement Pursuit will result in company doom -- certain!

Some of us have forgotten what we learned many years ago when we had suggestion boxes in our plants. We learned that those on the production floor knew better than anyone what needed to be done to improve productivity and quality. The problem was that we really did not have a program in place to follow up. Now it is time to get those suggestions out of the box and empower employees and groups of employees to participate in their own change initiatives for the good of the company.


Continuous Improvement: What Is It?

What is continuous improvement and why is it important? The answers are found in the following simple example:

I did some consulting for a case goods manufacturer last year. During a tour of the factory I noticed that there was a lady on the assembly line working very diligently scraping and hand sanding every one of the veneered tops to remove defects. I had just seen an excellent sanding department with up-to-date equipment so I asked Albert, the supervisor, why they were having to do so much re-work?

He replied, "We always have to because of the scratches and marks on the tops."

"Where do the marks come from?" I asked.

"Well, they just happen."

"Have you tried to find out why?"

"We can't. It's always something -- first one thing and then another".

I replied, "Well, why don't you try to fix the one thing' first and then the other'?"

Sure enough, we took a quick look and found the drawer fitter was using the top as a workbench for his tools; the top-out station drug one top across the other as they drew from stock; and a wet sponge was set on another top. I suggested to Albert that we take two minutes, right then, and explain the problem to the entire line and point out some of our observations asking them to see if they could find ways to avoid the extra work.

The assemblers began being more careful when applying glue so there was no reason to use a wet sponge on the tops to remove the glue. The top-out station started lifting the tops instead of dragging them. The drawer fitters started placing their tools on a convenient shelf they made. (These are woodworkers, afterall.) Other ideas on how to avoid dents and scratches were discussed.

By the end of the next day, the lady who had been sanding the tops had been moved to another department. That's a $30,000 cost avoidance!

The norm in industry today is to repair the damage or to remove the symptom. That's what they were doing. The Kaizen way is to get to the cause and remove it, permanently. Putting it another way, we often are satisfied to say: "If it's broken, fix it." In a plant practicing continuous improvement, the question is: "Why did it break?"

I have said it before and I will say it again. You have to believe that your company can and must improve to meet the challenges of tomorrow. Furthermore, you need to believe in the ability of your people to recognize opportunities and make improvements in an ongoing manner.

If you still want a fancy definition of Kaizen, it is the metaphysics of positive change. If you prefer, it is a philosophy, an attitude, a way of thinking, and a way of acting all in one. It can include Kaizen Circles, Quality Circles, Total Quality Management, Participative Management, Kan Ban, JIT, and many other useful tools. However, it can be as simple as your dedication to get people involved in cutting costs through positive change.


How to Fail at Kaizen

* Go around telling everyone you have a great program to save the company - "right now."

* Believe that you know all the questions and have all of the answers to make Continuous Improvement work in your company.

* Begin before discussing with your key people to decide what you want to accomplish.

* Use your own personal vision to lead the effort instead of developing a set of long range goals for your company.

* Believe in changing processes and systems alone without any attention to the company culture.

* Expect and tolerate no failures or set-backs

Pilot Program

Do not start out making your Continuous Improvement Program too complicated. Go slowly. Be willing to take a step or two backwards from time to time. Expect mistakes. Don't freak out when they occur. Learn from them.

If you wish, do as I have done and begin with a pilot program after you have decided on a vision of where your company needs to go. Identify a critical area in which you would like to see progress made. Select a group of capable individuals to make up a team. Maybe it is a manufacturing department, such as packing. Get the supervisor in the team leadership mode. Let them begin to work on their challenges. With your leadership from the top and their initiatives from the bottom you will have a winning effort.

I would caution you not to let an atmosphere of elitism surface. I have seen this turn the rest of the plant against the idea.

This is just a pilot program to find out what works and what doesn't in your organization. It can also serve to generate interest throughout your organization. Look at it as a primer.


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