July 20, 2015 / best practices, continuous improvement, lean manufacturing, LIT, strategic planning
Over the last few years, most manufacturers have touted continuous improvement as a top priority and company goal. Case in point: two of the three industrial metal-cutting companies in our feature on top performers listed continuous improvement as an imperative operational strategy and best practice that sets their shops above the rest.
In theory, the concept of constantly improving a business sounds good. However, the truth is that many managers are still unsure of what continuous improvement looks like in practice. Below is a brief overview of this often over-used, but misunderstood term and how you can actually put it to work in your machine shop.
Defining Continuous Improvement
Continuous improvement is an active plan where employees proactively work together to achieve regular, incremental improvements either in a product, service, or process. Most companies achieve this by either adopting one of the well-known continuous improvement methods or through the combination of two or more tools.
According to ASQ, the most widely used tool for continuous improvement is a four-step quality model—the plan-do-check-act (PDCA) cycle, also known as Deming Cycle or Shewhart Cycle. Other widely used tools include Six Sigma, lean manufacturing, and Total Quality Management.
Choosing the right continuous improvement tool should be based on a company’s resources, staff, and long-term goals. In some cases, companies combine multiple methods to achieve better, longer-term results. For example, as discussed in an earlier blog, many manufacturers have found it beneficial to combine lean manufacturing principles with Six Sigma methods.
Putting It into Practice
Once a company decides on a continuous improvement method, managers need to think about how they are going to put it into practice—a daunting and overwhelming decision. Like any strategic endeavor, the key is to understand that continuous improvement is not a one-size-fits-all scenario. There are models companies can follow, but in the end, the most effective continuous improvement strategy is the one built around your company’s unique culture, resources, and long-term goals.
Plast-O-Matic Valves Inc., for example, has based its continuous improvement strategy on four key elements. According to a feature from Modern Machine Shop, the manufacturer is focused on:
- Planning. To get everyone on the same page with the same goals and vision, President Tim DeLorenzo developed a two-page strategic plan that included the company’s SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threat) analysis, and its values and key initiatives for the year. This, DeLorenzo said, made the strategic plan easier to manage since it was divided into quarterly milestones.
- Delegation with accountability. DeLorenzo charged managers to run their departments as they saw fit, but each one was required to report performance and progress on the strategic plan on a quarterly basis. If targets were not met, an action plan was developed and agreed upon in that meeting. Each manager was held accountable and charged with not only managing a said department, but also improving it.
- Lean principles. Lean thinking and processes weren’t just applied to the shop floor—they were applied to every facet of the business, including customer service, accounting and employee training, and development. Traditional lean practices, such as 5S and scheduling, were also implemented to help simplify manufacturing processes.
- Customer service. After 48 years in business, DeLorenzo knew satisfied customers were key to sustaining success. The company’s commitment to customer service was included in its mission statement and embedded into the shop’s culture from technical sales to engineering.
Power tool manufacturer Bosch, on the other hand, has taken what it calls a “Shark Tank approach” to continuous improvement. As reported in this IndustryWeek article, managers are asked to come up with continuous improvement ideas and then pitch them to a panel comprising senior plant leaders and a local lean project coordinator. After asking questions on each idea, the panel decides which pitches to implement and which ones to cut. Bosch says its team typically chooses ideas that can be executed in a 90-day cycle and make the most impact on performance.
Getting on the Right Path
There is no question continuous improvement is critical to succeeding in today’s market, and best-in-class managers are proactively encouraging change at all levels of their organization. However, as the above examples show, continuous improvement needs to be both systematic and strategic to be effective. By using a combination of improvement tools and creativity, today’s machine shops can develop a continuous improvement plan that lines up with their goals and, hopefully, puts them on a path of continuous success.