3 Key Strategies for Continuous Improvement

Compiled and summarized by Rachael Pfenninger, director of strategic execution, AMBA

Continuous improvement is at the heart of any successful manufacturing company. If ownership, the management team and all employees aren’t looking constantly for ways to eliminate waste, simplify processes or improve quality, then the organization has become stagnant – and likely is leaving profits on the table.

During the 2020 AMBA Continuous Improvement Forum, over 50 mold manufacturers and their peers gathered to review their strategies, processes and best practices, walking away with implementable ideas on how data and process can drive cultural transformation and bottom-line impact. The following are three key strategies offered during the forum – only a small sampling of the ideas and innovations and ideas revealed by presenters and attendees.

  1. Ensure improvements are driven by data and carried out by the correct alignment of personnel.
  2. Get internal and external stakeholders on board by properly defining the improvement to be made.
  3. Create an atmosphere where staff members understand the goals and have the support and resources to reach them.

Laying a Foundation

Presented by Scott Walton, Harbour Results

Scott Walton, Harbour Results, laid the foundation for why the culture of continuous improvement continues to grow in importance. During the session, attendees were challenged to evaluate how their operations could improve, particularly through the use of data and alignment of personnel into the organizational roles most suited to their skills sets.

To begin, Walton recommended conducting an honest, deep-dive health check with an assessment of the organization’s financial health, which includes reviewing the income statement, balance sheet and cash flow to determine if a company is distressed. A company can then set continuous improvement goals by evaluating throughput.

Once financials have been reviewed, Walton stressed the importance of the personnel involvement. To truly understand and maximize scheduling efficiency, he recommends the use of a dedicated person who can track, share, plan and implement feedback, which ultimately will reduce leadtime. Additionally, Walton suggested the adoption of a task-based manufacturing philosophy, where the organization documents the following: all tasks performed, process steps, standard work documents, workstation design and scheduling effectiveness. Implementing this methodology allows better insight into needed improvements and the personnel best suited to manage them. 

Getting Stakeholders on Board

Presented by Matin Karbassioon, CONNSTEP

Echoing Walton’s presentation, Matin Karbassioon opened the Forum’s second day by arguing that solving problems begins with real data and information. He went one step further, however, by emphasizing that both an organization’s “internal” stakeholders (its employees) and its “external” stakeholders (outside partners) are key to utilizing this data and making impactful improvements to an organization’s process and output. By including all stakeholders in the discussion, an organization is better able to define the current state of the problem and develop a simple, yet impactful, problem statement. 

Once a problem is properly defined and articulated, it makes it easier to review its contributing factors, identify the personnel involved and bring together the key stakeholders so that the problem can be successfully addressed. Karbassioon recommends building a team of five to seven people, which should include process owners/area staff subject matter experts, outside eyes and a facilitator, if needed. 

In addition to his other guidance, Karbassioon provided two critical takeaways: be wary of crafting an ineffective problem statement and of the potential of conflict. When articulating a problem statement, for instance, be careful not to state a solution or make the problem too large or too vague. Instead, begin with what is impacted when the problem occurs, narrow down when the problem occurs and explain who is impacted. To minimize conflict, be aware of members bringing together different agendas, personalities and viewpoints. Ultimately, organizations want to start with stating a process statement that everyone understands and can work together to solve.

Buy-In, Accountability and Empowerment

Presented by David Kachoui and Paul Thal, Thal Precision Industries

For the management team at Thal Precision Industries, implementing a program of continuous improvement began not with tasks or a particular project, but with people – by building a foundation of mentorship on which continuous improvement could thrive. This included coaching employees through new learning opportunities, gaining employee buy-in and cultivating a team dynamic of empowerment, ultimately resulting in improved accountability, more open lines of communication and efficient task distribution.

During this team’s presentation, David Kachoui and Paul Thal emphasized that effective continuous improvement relies on communication from leadership to set expectations and creating a safe environment for employees to provide feedback. The company began by prioritizing processes into safety, quality, productivity and cost, and   asked questions such as: What is working? What is not? What would work better?

Throughout this process, the Thal Precision team learned that not everyone was aligned to the tasks best suited to them, and that there were new skills others wanted to learn. This led to the creation of a “task board,” which allowed the implementation of learning labs – giving employees the tools needed to appropriately meet the goals that were set for continuous improvement. 

In addition to these other changes, Kachoui and Thal also made the decision to give homework – to delegate tasks – because it empowers employees and instills a sense of pride. They also felt that feedback also is important because that’s where leadership can discover how everyone is working together and whether there are issues that need to be addressed. How is the process going? Are there any frustrations in the process? 

Ultimately, Thal Precision has learned that involving everyone in problem-solving, training them to perform the necessary tasks and asking for feedback about the process has helped to breed a culture of continuous improvement and ensure buy-in to current and future endeavors.