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How to Drive Continuous Improvement to Stay Competitive

A problem this week is a bigger problem next week if you don't manage it.

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Several decades ago, Toyota was at risk of bankruptcy, assembling only a fraction of the cars their competitors produced. By creating a lean manufacturing system to make more cars with fewer machines, people and time, they quickly became one of the world's largest and most successful automotive companies. There's no secret to the success they experience today – it's based on an ability to maintain a steady state of production by creating a culture of operational effectiveness where their people, tools, processes and technology work together. 

We can look to companies like Toyota as an example of continuous improvement, but the reality is several minor inefficiencies can slip into operations daily. Over the months, years and decades, they start adding up to wasted productivity and costs, affecting your organization's bottom line. 

Staying competitive involves driving a system of continuous improvement – creating an ecosystem where you're future-ready and able to respond to changes in supply and demand. 

When something goes wrong, do your employees know how to fix the problem without calling in a manager? Are your teams communicating and working towards the same goal? Whether running a shiny new plant with all the latest tech or working with decades-old equipment, everyone has the same challenge. 

If you're running a dysfunctional organization without the right processes in place, you won't get the results you're looking for. It's about working smarter, faster, better and safer than we did yesterday – only then will you start to transform your operations. 

Start with assessing your current state 

No organization's perfect. There's always room for improvement. Most runners will never beat a world record, but that doesn't mean they can't train to get better and faster. The same goes for your company. Identifying your organization's pain points and the problems you are trying to solve is the best place to start. 

It could be a specific production line that isn't working properly or a bigger issue affecting all your plants. You need to educate best practices and your desired future state. An external team or outside consultant can help identify your problems, why you have them and how to address them with your team. 

Are your operators using your assets like a rental car (no ditch too deep, no curb too high)? Do you have preventive or predictive maintenance in place, or is everyone operating in the state of "if it's not broke, don't fix it"? These are important questions you need to address before you can start changing anything. 

A couple of years ago, we were working with a large candy factory. They were having issues with their mixer – it had broken down and was completely out of operation. After further investigation, we discovered the problem had happened before – it didn't happen often, but when it did, the domino effect of lost productivity was significant. This mixer was their most critical piece of equipment. The organization was ineffective because it failed to understand how these few breakdowns could have a major effect on the business. They would never get the desired results without identifying and addressing all aspects of their current state. 

For Toyota, problems are simply seen as opportunities to improve processes and get products out the door. At the core of this is a belief that any organization can use to solve a problem on the plant floor using an A3 size paper. It starts with focusing on four key areas: 

  1. Understanding the current state of operation
  2. Educating workers on best practices and future state 
  3. Building a business case 
  4. Putting an action plan in place

There's no "magic" to these steps. The exercise is something every organization can and should be doing. So, why aren't more plants using this type of framework? The answer is that most of the time, we are too many steps ahead – putting a plan and strategy in place without understanding the "why." Pinpointing the underlying causes of recurring problems within your organization can be the biggest challenge but also the best opportunity. 

Drive effectiveness by working as a team 

You may think you've pinpointed your organization's problem, but we've realized from decades of doing this work that "it's never just one thing." Without doing your pre-work and a second opinion to validate your assumptions, you could end up "fixing" the wrong potential cause for your symptoms.

Recently, a global manufacturer hired us for a large project involving over 30 plants. They'd initially implemented a lean manufacturing program in one plant, thinking it would address productivity issues. Their goals were to standardize procedures, implement single-minute exchange of die (SMED), and improve changeovers. They successfully did all these things yet still had the same problems. The real cause? Their people weren't looking after the equipment. Because they didn't have the right reliability excellence practices in place, they were spending money needlessly and affecting their overall productivity. 

How do you get your employees to work more effectively? Identify organizational goals, engage your people in implementing best practices, measure the performance and hold everyone accountable for their part of the solution. We do this through partnership agreements – a document signed by workers that focuses on a particular part of the business. 

Say you've got a preventive maintenance program; you have a schedule that allows 10 hours of downtime for a specific piece of equipment to receive maintenance. If it takes maintenance 8-10 hours to work on the equipment, it needs to be shut down on time to complete the work in the allotted time. 

If operations doesn't shut it down on time, it means maintenance either has less time to complete their work (so they rush or don't complete it) or the equipment is late getting back online – impacting productivity almost immediately or equipment performance down the line. An agreement would ensure the machine shuts down at the right time, not a minute later. Both teams would be working together towards a common goal to help drive accountability. 

Find the gaps in your existing operations

Getting operations to run better, faster, cheaper, and safer isn't easy. Condition monitoring, predictive maintenance, AI and machine learning are all revolutionizing the industry and offering a substantial return on investment. Sensors on equipment monitor operations and trigger alerts. 

Automated equipment supports workers with everyday tasks and transforms the way information is managed across the organization. 

Predictive maintenance reduces costs, making the workplace safer by allowing your maintenance group to make adjustments or repairs in a planned environment instead of trying to fix it in a breakdown situation. 

They're all pieces of the puzzle. But any of these pieces on their own aren't going to fix your problems. A problem this week is a bigger problem next week if you don't manage it. 

But what if there was a way of operating that takes into account not just technology but the whole picture of your company's operations? Finding the gaps that exist within your organization can help you get the most out of your people, processes and technology. An Industry 4.0 assessment is one route to go. It can help determine if you are ready for new technology and what to implement to get the right results.

The companies operating at the highest levels of operational effectiveness have the tools and technology, but they've also spent time developing processes around that tech. 

Not to mention leaning out the rest of their operation by removing waste, lessening excess inventory and properly maintaining equipment. Start by finding your organization's true north, develop and align your people, engage them in innovation, then standardize your processes, tools and technology around that common goal. 

Adopting this new mindset toward operational effectiveness will help you on your path to a smarter culture. 

Randy Heisler is a vice president with Life Cycle Engineering (LCE) specializing in reliability consulting, services and education. He manages teams of consultants at client sites both domestically and internationally. Prior to joining LCE, he spent 25 years in the maintenance and reliability field in the steel industry.

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