The Third Leg of the Manufacturing Stool: Continuous Improvement


When I asked one of the 2014 Industry Week Best Plants leaders the percentage of full time resources assigned to continuous improvement at his plant, his response was “everyone,” and he looked at me quizzically. “No, I realize everyone should be involved in CI work,” I replied, “But how many are fully devoted, dedicated resources?” He shook his head and still insisted they really didn’t look at continuous improvement support that way.

It turns out that his plant actually does have some dedicated resources in the form of operators trained to be full time CI resources. These folks work on improvements in the manufacturing operation that engineers either don’t have the time to do or the work doesn’t utilize their skill set effectively (from my experience, the engineers effectively served as coaches to the shop floor operators and mechanics in these types of roles, passing on their skills and providing on-the-job training in problem analysis and solution identification). But I get ahead of myself.

Most manufacturing operations starting out on the continuous improvement journey probably don’t have the luxury of assigning plant operators full-time to continuous improvement work. Although when the CI project is initially set up, to the extent feasible, it is a good practice to have shop floor plant operators and mechanics put on special assignment to resource the effort. One of the rewards for those who do well in the role can be a full time assignment as a continuous improvement resource if they are so inclined.

The Best Plants leader I talked to touched on the ultimate objective of a continuous improvement project or program: establish CI as a way of life – a culture sewn into the fabric of the organization. The way to do this is make CI one of the key components of everyone’s job assignment. It can’t be a separate activity or task, but must be embedded into everyone’s daily responsibilities and standard work. Think of it as a three-legged stool: Operate, Maintain, Continuously Improve. If the stool is missing a leg, it cannot stand. Likewise, if the plant is solely focused on the day-to-day operations and maintain activities without an eye toward improvement, then entropy will set in and its long-term viability and competitiveness is put at risk.

Sounds great, right? But how does one shift resources from just keeping the plant running to include this concept of continuous improvement?

In an earlier post, I suggested that a continuous improvement effort probably starts out as a project with its own managing process, leadership, resources, objectives, and implementation plan. The key to development of a culture is to think of the initial CI focus as “Phase 1” of the effort, which I will call “CI as a Project.” Hopefully, you will come up with a catchier, more inspiring title. (By the way, buying time and credibility from the business and your boss through the delivery of short term results is often critical to the future of the effort.) Phase 1 should plant the seeds of a CI culture by communicating the improvement activities undertaken and progress made to as many employees as possible (orientation if you will).

One simple step to ritualize communication across a broad section of the organization is to make the Phase 1 activities a standing agenda item within existing operate/maintain meetings, such as the shift starter, the daily operations review meeting, and weekly/monthly leadership team meeting. And as mentioned above, look for ways to directly involve shop floor operators and mechanics in Phase 1 possibly by inviting a critical few (particularly those who are informal change leaders) to participate on the CI team(s) established to drive the Phase 1 improvements. But—and I emphasize this from hard experience—don’t forget to include your process, design, and product development engineers as well.

To successfully transition to Phase 2—let’s call this “CI as a Way of Life”—the CI team must move away from a primary focus on delivering discrete, project-based results toward a focus on broader workforce engagement in driving the next series of improvements. Consider a Pareto chart of improvement opportunities like the one shown below:



Most Pareto charts designed to show improvement opportunities have 3-5 bars that stand out because they highlight systemic issues in the plant that, if solved, can drive an immediate step-change in performance (e.g., debottlenecking a line, eliminating a major source of defects, reducing a major driver of unplanned downtime, etc.). These first 3-5 bars are typically best addressed through discrete improvement projects, making them ideal for Phase 1 of your CI deployment.


However, these Pareto charts often have a long tail of situational improvement opportunities (e.g., refining standard work, updating standard operating conditions, setting proper performance targets, etc.) that typically won’t be solved through a focused project but are best addressed by engaging the shop floor work teams, making them ideal for Phase 2.

Accept the fact that Phase 2 may require some overtime upfront to communicate expectations and train employees to apply the right CI tools, but the goal has to be to teach the organization, and particularly the work teams who interact with the product and process every day, that CI goes hand-in-hand with operating and maintaining the plant. Once CI becomes a routine part of the daily operations discussion, the foundation is laid for the third leg of the manufacturing stool.


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About the author

Tom Takacs

Former VP of Operations, DuPont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol