Dodging bullets in a scattergun approach
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Dodging bullets in a scattergun approach

I am a factory manager of a medium-sized engineering company (with around 250 employees). We started down the road to lean manufacturing two years ago after our managing director and operations director went on a course about continuous improvement. However, this road has proved decidedly bumpy.

They came back fired up with enthusiasm for CI, seeing it as the answer to all our problems. Until that point, we had been in the doldrums as a business for three or four years and seemed to be drifting, with no clear vision or direction.

The trouble was the senior managers got carried away and became obsessed with the tools and techniques associated with CI. As a result, I was told to implement 5S, quick changeover, value stream mapping, and a host of other initiatives without any preparation or forethought.

The operations director did nothing to prepare me personally for the CI introduction and so I was in the dark when it came to most of the tools and techniques; my boss simply gave me his training notes and expected me to work out from these how to implement what was demanded. Our employees were as ignorant of CI as I was; it was the blind leading the blind.

And the implementation proved to be a scattergun approach that caused disruption and confusion on the shopfloor. This, in turn, led to cynicism among almost everybody, even those who were initially enthusiastic.

Hardly anyone is now prepared to buy into the notion of continuous improvement so I know it will be an uphill struggle to bring in even the simplest CI initiative – the kaizen ground has effectively been poisoned by the cack-handed approach to introducing the process in the first place.

Is there anything we do to retrieve the situation and quash the scepticism and distrust of CI initiatives among the vast majority of our employees?

I would also like to know what sort of preparation should be done to ensure, as far as is possible, we achieve a successful CI implementation?

The Solution

Before I answer your two questions I’d like to be a little provocative and discuss the general sense of ‘dereliction of duty’ that I read in your letter.

First, your elders and betters have evidenced not so much delegation as abdication. What were they thinking? In fact, what, if anything, had they learned from attending their course on CI? Do they not have a duty of care towards their staff? Are they not responsible to shareholders for business performance? I don’t detect much thoughtful or responsible behaviour, let alone any ‘leading with
humility’, one of the latest watchwords in lean thinking. What did you see?

Which brings me to my second point; what about you?

So you knowingly accepted the poisoned chalice. Why? How did you try to influence their thinking; how did you try to constructively subvert their scheme? How culpable were you for your own loss of sight (‘the blind leading the blind’)? I’m sorry that this is so challenging, but you could have said: “No, this won’t work. I’m going to find a better way”. Not easy I know, but possible. Ruminate, please.

As to the first of your questions here’s my reply. Dump the lingo, ditch the tools and go back to the heart of what CI is about – leveraging the ingenuity of your people to make improvements.
And do it in the following way. Start by asking team members to make a point of identifying, one by one, all of the problems they face in doing their job. Ask them to write these on a card and post it on the wall behind them.

For every card that describes a surfaced problem, place a gold star on it and go to the worker responsible and coach him to find a solution. Place a second gold star on the card to indicate that the problem is being worked on. When the improvement is made, move the card to a separate and adjacent list entitled, ‘Improvements implemented’ and add a third gold star. Do this and nothing else for three months and watch interest in CI increase dramatically.

As to your second question, don’t implement CI. Begin, as I have described above, seeking to tackle the real problems faced by real people and allow the approach to CI to emerge. As people begin to understand more, allow them to research and experiment with the use of the lean and CI tools that exist; there are plenty of them.

If all this is a little too loose and you feel the need for more structure, do two things – measure the number of improvements made each week and estimate the elapsed time in closing out each problem. You should see that you do more, faster. Secondly, review learning regularly. The ‘check’ phase of CI is usually missed or given scant attention, but it is the most critical; dare to be different.

I look forward to hearing about your progress and your self-reflection.

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