I’m often asked what continuous improvement in manufacturing is and whether it’s a waste of time to spend excessive amount of time trying to improve everything. Here’s a guide to help expose why continuous improvement is something you should be adopting in your culture today.
What is Continuous Improvement in Manufacturing? Continuous improvement is a way of always challenging the current way processes and output is achieved, in view of improving them. The idea is not to make vast step changes, but small incremental gains regularly, by everyone in the business. The net result being substantially improved processes and performance over time.
Lean Manufacturing Versus Continuous Improvement in Manufacturing
So, if continuous improvement focuses on improving the way things are done, then where does lean fit?
Most people would argue that there’s a big difference. They’d say that lean focuses on reducing waste and improving efficiency; whereas continuous improvement is about ensuring the employees make regular daily improvements at the level they can influence.
I largely disagree. Continuous improvement and lean are very much the same.
Yes, lean focuses on improving processes and reducing waste. But every business has processes. Therefore, every company should adopt lean to improve efficiency.
So too is teamwork and the ability to empower employees to make daily improvement.
Both the above can be put at the front door of lean and continuous improvement as being the same thing.
The goal is simple: To use the right tools to make progress everyday towards your goals – be it in strategy, team development, process efficiencies and quality.
5 Reasons for Using Continuous Improvement in Manufacturing
Here are what I believe to be the most critical reasons for continuous improvement to be adopted and how it can make an impact to your business.
Culture Creates Competitiveness
There’s no point a manager or a supervisor being engaged in continuous improvement if no-one else is. Any improvement will be overshadowed by inertia experienced in all other areas of the business.
On the other hand, if you can get a significant number of people engaged in improving their processes, then you can get traction.
And if you can get traction, you can experience big shifts in improvement across the board. This, if constantly kept up, will ensure the culture of the company changes to one that looks for improvements all the time.
If everyone in your manufacturing business are engaged in actively seeking improvement opportunities, no matter how small…
Would your business be a better place to work?
Would it be a happier place?
What about your customers – Would they see an improvement in customer service?
Would you get more done?
The chances are a resounding yes to all of these questions.
Creating a continuous improvement framework in your business, will help achieve a better workforce, processes and performance.
The truth is, when your workforce are engaged and happier, they get more done. They’ll also go out of their way to keep their high standards up.
This commitment normally comes with the ability to empower them and ask them what’s wrong and what can be improved.
It doesn’t stop there. By giving them empowerment to make changes; to try new things without fear of failing, then you’ll get a large group of people who feel more engaged and focused.
It all comes from allowing them to drive daily improvements and giving them the time to implement their ideas, too.
The Process Perspective & Daily Improvement
Now, be honest. How many times do you look at your key processes? How often do you measure their performance?
For most businesses, it’s a resounding never (or not often enough).
Continuous improvement allows you to quickly track your key processes every day and in many cases, every hour. By doing this, you can see what’s working and what’s not.
And when you know how you’re performing, you can quickly improve if things are slipping… Before things become too late to fix.
By observing your key processes and tracking them, you’re innately promoting a culture of continuous improvement, which is:
- Observe what’s happening
- Identify why things are not going to plan or how they can be improved
- Take action on a small scale to test an improvement
- Take action on the results
Promoting a process perspective will help keep you constantly innovating and striving for the very best.
Incremental Gains in Performance
If people are being empowered to make improvements and the perspective is to continuously observe and improve processes, no matter how small the idea… Performance will improve.
It has to.
Performance could be in a vast number of areas.
Here are some examples:
- Reduction in time taken to manufacture and assemble a product – Implementing continuous flow
- Less stock needed in your warehouse – Improving the stock control and ordering processes
- Reduce defects received to customers – Implementing daily problem solving techniques
- Improving up time on machines – Improving set up times
- Improving lead time from order to delivery – Creating Right First Time Information within the sales process
- Improving profitability – Less resource and work in progress tied up, through continuous flow principles
- Reduce the time it takes to pick items – through better stock holding and layout
If you’re constantly measuring key indicators around safety, quality, cost delivery and employee satisfaction, it will give you more than enough to identify where you can improve.
If your competitors offer a 3 week lead time, then there’s no point going back to them and pointing out that you can only offer 6 weeks. You’ll more than likely push them away.
It’s this exact lack of competitiveness which continuous improvement in manufacturing can address.
Start with what the customer sees as value – what they want and expect. Then work backwards to improve processes to achieve this.
Lead time reductions are one of the main bye products of implementing good continuous improvement and lean transformations.
If your customer wants more variation, then you can’t expect to grow if you can’t offer it.
If they want better quality, then you must give them what they want. That’s where continuous improvement can help transform the way you add value to your customers.
Read the Gains Across All Areas
When everyone in the business is used to implementing daily PDCA, then everything can be improved and lessons learned read across the business. Here are some areas:
- Improving technology to help efficiency
- Improve communication across the business to tackle problems quickly
- Align strategy and goals in ways that were never done before
- Develop self directed work teams to drive local decision making and empowerment
- Improve the working conditions for the employees to prosper
- Develop key skills across the business, from leadership skills, to lean and other technical skills
- Develop working relationships and build teamwork
- Design new products and services faster
- Improved processes that can be adopted in other areas
You see, everything can be observed and improved. One of the simplest methods to do this is through the use of Pareto Charts. Simply by analysing and finding the biggest opportunities, you’ll be able to quickly spend the right resource in the right areas.
And when you get the hunger for continuous improvement in your manufacturing business, you’ll look at every area as an opportunity for focused improvement.