hygiene zone
quality tools
quality techniques
human issues
quality awards
quality extra
visitor tools


Stay Informed
Sign up below to receive our Occasional Newsletter.

We Respect Your Privacy!

Web SaferPak
SaferPak: Food Packaging Safety, Food Safety, Business Improvement and Quality Management
       Home     About     Contact

The Continuous Process Improvement Environment on the Manufacturing Floor
By Karl Walinskas

Improvements 'R' Us
Directive vs. Involvement
Employee Empowerment
Self-Directed Work Teams
Training Emphasis
Quality Focus
Employee Compensation

Improvements ‘R’ Us
Throughout the realm of modern manufacturing, there is an ever-increasing supply of advisors, gurus, consultants, and sacred cows who can tell you how to achieve continuous improvement at your manufacturing plant. Acronyms such as ISO-9000, SPC, DFMA, TQM, and FMEA represent continuous improvement salvation for the modern day manufacturer as long as you sincerely affirm them in your mirror daily for one month. All too often, unfamiliar concepts such as Re-Engineering, Taguchi Methods, and Cellular Manufacturing can dictate the course of your company’s direction in an effort to keep up with the Jones-atas and to silence that "giant sucking sound" of all American jobs being jettisoned South of the Border.

Let me say now before my impending assassination that there is absolutely nothing wrong with any of the methods described above. These techniques are all excellent means to achieving the worthy end of global competitiveness. Each tackles a specific problem of the manufacturing world and systematically addresses it with tangible activities that can be undertaken to produce the desired result.

There is one common element that is the linchpin to all the continuous improvement methods, either referenced above, in a textbook, or event those yet to be imagined: people. PEOPLE! No matter how technically advanced and all-encompassing the method your company chooses to put into place is, it is people—the management and the workforce—that must make it happen.

I will explain in this article how you can create the environment necessary wherein your people will want to—even better, will have to—move toward continuous improvement for their very survival!

Directive vs. Involvement
You pick up the trade magazine for your industry and browse through the table of contents. No less than three articles on continuous improvement. This buzz-phrase seems to be inundating all of manufacturing literature. Just when you think you’ve seen enough, your company newsletter is getting into the act with an edict from the CEO and general manager that goes something like this, "Henceforth, let all men, women, and beasts knoweth that the ABC Company and all its subjects will abide by this royal decree, and shall liveth and worketh within the dictates of a continuum of never-ending improvement until God taketh them from this mortal earth." This makes it official. Your company now practices continuous improvement until infinity.

This is what’s known as the management directive. Somewhere up in the clouds of the senior management of an organization, someone has picked up on a hot topic and passed it into law for the company. The problem is, saying it doesn’t make it so. In order to implement any major concept which will affect the entire structure of an organization, more than a management directive is needed. You need employee buy-in! How do you get the rank and file to get on board with the program? They need to know WHY!

A person or a group can do anything given a strong enough ‘why’. The ‘how’, in my opinion, is only about 10% of the battle. The rest is in knowing why this transition is necessary. Employees in a manufacturing organization want and need to know the reasons behind this possibly painful change. They need to know that the competition isn’t standing still, that standards are always rising, that consumers are more demanding than ever, that the pacific rim countries that are grabbing market share are looking to the future and not to yesterday’s glory.

Your company’s workforce also learns by watching the top dogs. How is site and middle management responding to the call for continuous improvement? Does hypocrisy exist like the alcoholic boss who’s fooling around with the receptionist but expects his employees to be clean livers, or the shop foreman who demands quality measurements but never shows the interest to spot inspect parts? Heavy emphasis by management on continuous improvement practices is crucial. They must be walking the walk and talking the talk. Employees have to know that all levels of authority have themselves bought into the idea of continuous organizational improvement. This is true management involvement and participation in the process. Think about it. How does an apprentice toolmaker learn how to set up a CNC milling machine? By watching his superior do it first. It’s the same way with organizational changes. The body follows where the head leads, not where it says it is going.

When the company employees know the necessity for change and have an example from the management team to follow, you will achieve employee buy-in. They will know that the company is serious and their jobs may depend on it.

Employee Empowerment
Do you ever find yourself in a situation where you do something begrudgingly at someone’s request or command, but do the exact same thing gladly if it happens to be your idea? Who knows, maybe we’d all happily pay tax increases if it was our idea to.....Ummm.....bad example, but the point remains—change is less painful for us when we are, or at least when we feel we are, involved in the decision making. Don’t get me wrong, the company still needs a corporate vision for continuous improvement, but it is implemented much more effectively if the workers can partake in the process and give some meaningful input.

This doesn’t mean that the company has to put in place every wacky idea on how to make the organization better ("Yeah, we could, like, stock the Pepsi machine with Heineken!"), but if the employees are actively listened to, and they know it, they will be more apt to conform to the improvement suggestions from management. You will get scores of ideas worth implementing from the workforce. No one knows how to improve their job performance better than the guy who does it forty to sixty hours every week. I have been in plenty of companies for the purpose of improvement consultation, oftentimes not having any direct experience in their industry. Without fail, the best ideas for improvement come directly from the employees. I end up looking like a genius by merely organizing their thoughts, weeding out the clear losers, and giving them a conduit to management.

Empower your employees with responsibilities in the continuous improvement process and listen to their ideas. This will stimulate the continuous improvement environment and get the workforce fully on board with the program.

Self-Directed Work Teams
Unless you lived in Tokyo in the 1940’s and painfully remember the last attack of Ghydra the Two-Headed Monster, two or more heads generally are better than one. This is the principal behind self-directed work teams (SDWTs). You’re trying to implement a continuous improvement strategy throughout your company. A key goal should be to implement key process improvements across an entire manufacturing line. What do I mean by this? You don’t want one segment of the shop floor to improve at the expense of another. If your design department can pump out more product drawings by leaving off detailed dimensions and dumping a drawing file directly to a workstation at the process tool, you’d better make sure that the guys making the part are on board with this concept and can work at least as effectively as with detailed prints. You don’t want to trade one problem for another.

An effective implementation tool for any manufacturing improvement endeavor is the cross-functional SDWT. Cross-functionality is critical in order to avoid problems like that described in the previous paragraph. Team members can step back from the trees and see the entire forest by learning how their manufacturing process affects those downstream and ultimately contributes to the finished product. Individual production problems can be addressed with a SDWT which has a finite life—until the problem is fixed. Team members with knowledge of the entire system will more effectively arrive at solutions for their process. They can act as liaisons to their respective departments, explaining to the rank and file worker why a given idea will work or if there is a conflict somewhere down the line.

Management is empowering the workforce by delegating some key responsibilities to SDWTs. Now all the hokey sounding catch phrases such as "pride in your job", "being a team player", and "all for one—one for all!" can come into play. The establishment of self-directed work teams will contribute to a more effective environment for continuous improvement, much less provide a major tool for attaining consistently higher performance.

Training Emphasis
One definition of insanity is to repeatedly do the same thing again and again and expect different results. By striving for manufacturing continuous improvement, your organization will be continuously "raising the bar" and redefining excellence each year, maybe even each month. This goal of increasing standards becomes nothing more than another management directive if employees aren’t equipped with new tools to continually strengthen their performance.

This is where the emphasis on training comes into play. You are telling your employees you want better performance, yes, but now you are showing them that you’re willing to help them out. Certain companies, such as Saturn, place such a high emphasis on training that employee compensation includes a yearly training component that must be satisfied. To continually improve company performance, it logically follows that you must continually improve the skill level of the workers.

Will you have to hire a team of workforce development czars to make this happen? Maybe, but probably not. If employees know that management is receptive to improving their skills, they will tell you what they need to learn in order to improve their job performance. Obviously, the management team will still make the final determination on the validity of any training project. You may not want to pay for your employees to attend a class on How to Ski like the Pros—unless your company manufactures skis.

Quality Focus
In order to implement a continuous improvement plan expediently, it is important for the management team to focus on product and process quality. Employees must know how important quality is to the organization. How do you increase quality awareness? Start by making sure you have a Quality department or at least a Quality Control Inspector. QC Inspectors can be a genuine pain in the...neck for the crew on the shop floor, but they are supposed to be. Your employees will realize the way to avoid the QC guy or gal is to maintain a controlled process producing a quality product. If you want to avoid an audit, you make sure your taxes are done right the first time.

High visibility of quality emphasis includes posters, SPC charts on the walls, and quality articles in the company newsletter, among other things. Use your imagination. You’re trying to convey to the rank and file that quality is crucial to your continuous improvement effort. Another method of "pushing" the quality concept is to strive for ISO-9000 certification on the plant or corporate level. Employees know how much money is spent gearing up for ISO, so common sense tells them of the quality focus. The important thing to remember about quality methodologies like ISO is to use them properly as a discipline and method of manufacturing product. Don’t get caught up in the documentation for documentation’s sake loop, because employees will recognize it and deem the company’s quality improvement effort a joke.

Repetition is the father of learning. When your employees, through repeated exposure, become quality conscious, they will begin to investigate and dream up improvement ideas with a quality product in mind. Of course, the best way to motivate your employees to practice total quality is to reward them with appropriate compensation.

Employee Compensation
If you want to know how to motivate workers to take certain actions, when all else fails, follow the money. Not long ago, I assisted a garment manufacturer who was trying to implement the continuous improvement philosophy at his plant. The story is familiar enough, U.S. clothier losing market share to overseas competition, lot sizes decreasing meaning less work from more sources, etc. The president of the company really wanted to improve and loved the idea of cross functional self-directed work teams. The problem was that he wouldn’t let go of the 100% piece rate compensation plan for his employees. "The entire U.S. garment industry does it this way" I was told, to which my response was that the entire U.S. garment industry was in similar trouble. I told him that if you really want work teams in your plant, you must tie in team outputs to the employees’ compensation. He was at the point where individual employee goals (to achieve the highest piece rate at their specific operation) were in conflict with the goals of the organization (to have a steady work flow at all processes).

In order to get the workforce to vigorously implement continuous improvement concepts, be it TQM or SPC, reward them at some level for the effective use of these principles. They don’t necessarily have to perform morning team aerobics in their company uniforms while chanting a rendition of the corporate fight song. Rewards don’t necessarily have to be dollars and cents either, but that is most effective. If the organization is pushing quality, reward the work sector that shows the fewest defects over a one month span with appropriate bonuses. Publicize this with charts and graphs on the plant bulletin boards. Have a pizza party for that department. Show the whole company how important it is to embrace and enact the corporation’s continuous improvement agenda.

Most of your employees have two basic desires: the desire for recognition and the need to provide for themselves and their families. Pushing these two buttons with the correct incentive plan makes it foolish, in very real terms, for employees to resist the continuous improvement wave. In a basic, psychological sense, people are no different than Pavlov’s dogs. We respond positively to reward for certain behaviors. By developing the correct, proactive, reward based incentive plan, continuous improvement principles will become a habit that your workforce doesn’t have to think about to put into practice.

So now you know all about how to create the perfect continuous improvement environment at your manufacturing facility. Your management team is involved, your employees are empowered and involved in self-directed work teams, their is a corporate focus on quality and training, and the workforce is rewarded for raising their performance standards. Your company is armed with the right attitude and skills to embrace continuous improvement as a way of life.

Whew! Now that that’s settled, it’s time to get down to business. Reach into your magic hat, pick an acronym, and go nuts.


Karl Walinskas is an expert at organizational communications; a Chief Operating Officer, speaker and freelance writer in Pennsylvania who helps businesses and individuals who want to communicate more effectively through his company, The Speaking Connection







Back to previous page


top of page


home :: about :: contact :: terms

© 2006 SaferPak Ltd.