How to Create and Sustain Successful Continuous Improvement Teams

Nov. 30, 2011
Manufacturing plant managers and Lean manufacturing experts from Honda America, Irving Oil Refinery and elsewhere share their advice for those serious about continuous improvement. The process is not always easy, they say, but the results include energized, empowered and committed employees who know they are part of helping their companies prosper.

Deming says ‘your system is perfectly designed to give you the results you get.’ My experience so far completely agrees with Deming in this respect,” says Mark Porter, Operator Driven Reliability (ODR) project manager for Irving Oil Refinery in St. John, New Brunswick, Canada, referring to quality management pioneer W. Edwards Deming. Because that’s true, Irving Oil Refinery set out to change its systems a little more than a year ago to create a culture of innovation and continuous improvement. Like hundreds of other plants that have embarked on continuous improvement journeys, Irving Oil has had its share of successes and challenges. That’s why Mark Porter and others from Honda America, metal fabricator GenMet Corp., packaging machines maker ARPAC and elsewhere agreed to share their advice for creating and sustaining successful continuous improvement teams.  

The process is not always easy, they say, but the results include energized, empowered and committed employees who know they are part of helping their companies prosper.  Says Mary Isbister, president of Mequon, Wis.-based GenMet Corp., “The real ‘aha’ moment came when we realized that by becoming Lean, we had actually doubled our sales and cut our lead-times in half with the same number of people and the same manufacturing space.”
Porter says that although his company has not had formal Toyota training in Lean manufacturing, his ODR group has selected key kaizen (continuous improvement event) features such as “analyzing the process for waste, which could be in the form of material, effort, motion, etc., and using 5S key concepts for housecleaning our process units.” 5S is a workplace methodology that has become part of Lean manufacturing. The original five Japanese words start with the letter ‘s’ and translate into English as sorting, straightening, systematic cleaning, standardizing and sustaining.
Operations has been the primary focus of Irving Oil’s continuous improvement activity, with the objective of combining operations and maintenance activities for mutual benefit. Already, there have been many improvements in the pilot area, “and these improvements are not over yet,” says Porter.  
For example, when they applied the 5S concepts (or what they call “housekeeping”) to their processing units, Porter says the following things occurred:  “Our operators (we call them ‘facility technicians’ on our site), became aware of the new 5S standard, and then became aware of a new standard of housekeeping. This resulted in a work request survey, which produced over 400 proactive work requests for our pilot area. Our refinery leadership team made sure funding was available to deal with this large influx of unexpected maintenance work. The facilities technicians saw 5S support from our leadership team, and have begun to believe things can change for the better. The result of this was a better relationship between the facility technicians and the leadership team, and improved asset preparedness as we move into severe winter weather.”
Porter adds that “the feedback cycle from shift teams to ODR and then from ODR back; prompt response and resolution of any issues; and [subsequent] improvements and innovation such as the creation of Asset Operating Procedures has resulted in ‘pull’ from the shift teams for ODR involvement versus ‘pushing’ our ODR products on the shift teams.” 
Lean as support
The summary of Irving Oil’s accomplishments encompasses much of the advice plant managers recommend.  While it’s completely possible to be successful at continuous improvement without embracing the specifics of the Lean manufacturing philosophy, for example, many manufacturers have found the methods, structure and abundant resources are critical to their success. GenMet’s Isbister says, “Lean principles turn traditional manufacturing from the 1950s and ‘60s on its head and at times can be counterintuitive.  The concept of one-piece flow, for example, can be difficult to accept when the traditional method had been batch processing.”  GenMet used the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership as guides and mentors for its Lean journey. 
John Hayden, manufacturing engineering manager at Siemens Industry’s West Chicago, Ill. plant has been involved with continuous improvement initiatives for 20 years. “It started when, as a plant manager of a different company, we needed to change from an individual kitting process to something that would accommodate a six-fold increase in production,” says Hayden. “I’m a math major, and I think that makes me a very process-oriented thinker. I said, ‘We’re going to have to do things  differently—and I  can’t do it on my  own.’”
Hayden is responsible for the processes at  the 375-person Siemens plant that assembles engineered-to-order electrical distribution products such as low-voltage motor control centers and Sinvert solar inverters.  If Irving Oil’s program is largely do-it-yourself, Hayden’s continuous improvement program is super-structured—largely as a result of being part of a $102 billion, German-owned company. “Germany calls it Kaizen 2+2, for ‘two heads are better than one,’” he says.  “We had already started some kaizen events here, and then I hired an engineer, Jesus Guillermo Fernandez, who had worked out of Siemens Guadalajara [Mexico] and was trained in Kaizen2+2. He became our plant mentor.”
There are three Siemens-wide systems that facilitate continuous improvement by tracking ideas, recognizing employees, and realizing financial impact; they ensure results are measured and employees are compensated for improvements. The West Chicago plant had already been involved in 5S activities, so “we were already holding employees responsible for their acre of the plant—one of 44 identified zones of operation—so that improvement culture already existed,” he says.
Adding kaizen events helped make continuous improvement sustainable. “Without structure, kaizen took too long. Now it’s done as three half days with specific milestones for each day,” Hayden says. “You lose momentum when you don’t know how long it will take and where it’s going.” Hayden’s kaizen teams actually implement as many of the suggested improvements as possible on that third day, “and then we have 90 days to complete the rest. If changes are bigger, we put them on a Parking Lot list for follow up,” he says.  
“We’ve had 600 suggestions from the floor so far this year, and while not all of them are feasible, about half of the good ones have been implemented already,” Hayden adds. “Continuous improvement is really part of our culture.”
Changing the culture
Changing a corporate culture is never easy, but it is possible—and can be a great source of pride to employees and management. Isbister says manufacturing at GenMet evolved from high-volume, low-mix runs to low-volume, high-mix.  The company also schedules work, purchases material and processes job orders very differently than before.  “It took about three years, but we changed the way our organization thinks about manufacturing,” she says.  “All team members have become very effective at identifying waste.  I am proud that our GenMet staff continues to find ways to reduce waste, improve flow, and increase capacity by living Lean principles.” 
Isbister says employees recognize that optimizing the performance of a single work center or individual, at the expense of the whole, hurts the organization/team as a whole. “Employees have a much higher ‘ownership quotient’ than they did before, because they have responsibility that extends beyond a single job function,” she says. For example, all team members strive to attain Quality at the Source certification, as well as to attain as many different capabilities as possible so that they can perform multiple activities in a production cell.  
“It is possible to operate by Lean principles in one area of your organization and not in others; however, if you really want to realize the full power and benefit of Lean and ensure that it becomes a key element of you culture, all functional areas need to follow Lean practice,” adds Isbister. GenMet started with the production floor and the first Lean team was composed of GenMet’s President, CEO, Production Manager, Customer Service, Purchasing and Shop Floor Area captains.  As the team progressed, they added Engineering, IT and Quality.  “Participation from all these functional areas was necessary to ensure that all aspects of product realization followed Lean principles,” she explains.  
“Once these principles are ingrained in the organization’s culture, it becomes second nature,” adds Isbister. “If, however, you find reasons for exceptions [and] allow pockets of resistance to remain—such as one or more work centers do not follow Lean principles—there will be a weak link in the chain, and eventually the system will revert to the old ways.” 
Irving Oil’s Porter says it’s important to recognize and respect the culture you have, even as you try to change it. , “Personnel at our plant seemed to have some discomfort in adopting some of the Lean terminology (kaizen, 5S, pokayoke, yokaten, etc.).  Our team was able to use these very solid concepts, and rebrand them for our homegrown audience.” For example, the terms that Irving Oil uses instead of the Lean terms mentioned above are “Operator Performed Maintenance,” “Housekeeping,” “Operator Rounds” and “Effective Communications.”  
Porter says, “For our refinery, I would have to say the one word key to our success would be ‘respect.’ This is a peer-implemented kaizen, and it is developed and implemented by the facility technicians who work in their own areas. Our ODR team captures their knowledge, and facilitates a consistent approach to implementing and broadcasting the improved systems.  We respect their knowledge and their life lessons, and appreciate their contributions.”
Changing culture requires respect for employees’ contributions and the fears and obstacles that may keep them from contributing (see “Honda America and The Psychology of Continuous Improvement” on page 31). “There are some who are eager to learn and lead, some who are neutral, and some who are resistant to change.  Look for the early change leaders, and seek their natural leadership skills to help their peers,” suggests Porter.
Part of what has been rewarding to Siemens’ Hayden is watching quiet employees come alive through the continuous improvement process. “It really gives a voice to some of the nonvocal employees. They have the opportunity to present their improvements to management [at the end of a kaizen event.] Even the ones who are painfully shy are willing to talk about what they believe in. It’s just unbelievable to give a voice to those who don’t normally speak up,” he says.
Rewarding high achievers
Some experts agree more with Porter that successful and sustainable continuous improvement teams should be staffed with high potential individuals and the leaders of the organization.  “Both a position leader and more importantly the person who drives and inspires other people—they are the ones who other people listen to, “ says Keith Yeater, consultant with continuous improvement consulting group TBM Consulting, Durham, N.C.  “Some think it’s neat to have a bottom-up, grassroots approach, but typically it’s sub-optimized.”
With a background in engineering and an MBA, Yeater spent the first 20 years of his work life in manufacturing, working his way from production control manager to vice president of operations. In his experience, what he calls “drive-by kaizen” also does not deliver results.  If you want it to be sustained and long-term, he says, it’s got to be part of your corporate strategy and have top management support. 
“Some companies try it and it fizzles out. We can typically predict that early on, because the level of engagement drives the level of success. If a continuous improvement program is handed off to a mid-level manager, it’s not going to be that effective,” Yeater says. 
Most experts agree that if you can get the executives engaged, you will more likely have a successful and sustainable program. “Because culture change is not easy,” says GenMet’s Isbister, “total and unfailing commitment is necessary.  For most organizations, some form of capital investment, beyond employee training, is necessary to fully implement Lean practices. “And that takes real upper management commitment.  
What also requires upper management support is rewarding those people involved in continuous improvement process. Says Yeater, “The folks that jump in and drive [continuous improvement] should be seen rising in the organization. If you’re truly trying to drive a continuous improvement culture, what better way than to groom them in a CI department?”
One last thing to remember, from Porter at Irving Oil: “Keep it fresh, keep improving the system.  Do not let it stagnate.  Your competition is making improvements every day; evolving change is now a way of life.”
SIDEBAR: Honda America and the Psychology of Continuous Improvement. Click here to read how understanding human motivations can go along way toward ensuring a successful continuous improvement program.
Renee Robbins Bassett, [email protected], is Managing Editor of Automation World.

Sponsored Recommendations

Crisis averted: How our AI-powered services helped prevent a factory fire

Discover how Schneider Electric's services helped a food and beverage manufacturer avoid a factory fire with AI-powered analytics.

How IT Can Support More Sustainable Manufacturing Operations

This eBook outlines how IT departments can contribute to amanufacturing organization’s sustainability goals and how Schneider Electric's products and...

Three ways generative AI is helping our services experts become superheroes

Discover how we are leveraging generative AI to empower service experts, meet electrification demands, and drive data-driven decision-making

How AI can support better health – for people and power systems

Discover how AI is revolutionizing healthcare and power system management. Learn how AI-driven analytics empower businesses to optimize electrical asset performance and how similar...