3 Conditions For A Culture Of Continuous Improvement (Kaizen)

The challenges facing manufacturers today may seem new, but if we look back over the last 2 centuries it becomes clear that although the industry may look dramatically different, many of the same challenges exist. We’ve all been taught about the Industrial Revolution and how mechanization changed the world, but what many may not understand is that Manufacturing has experienced multiple revolutions, and in fact, we’re currently in the midst of the 4th. The 4th Industrial Revolution, similar to the first 3, will fundamentally change how those of us involved in the manufacturing industry work, but there is a notable difference between this revolution and those before; the dramatic scale, scope, complexity and speed of the change.

Considering the impact of the industrial changes sweeping through Manufacturing as a whole, it’s never been more important for the people involved to be engaged and proactive, and Kaizen is the vehicle for that engagement.

Kaizen, as we all know in Manufacturing is an approach to continuous improvement where the people in an organization work together to achieve continuous incremental improvements. I like to take it a step further by considering the combined talents, experience, education, etc. of the organization’s people as an engine of ideas. Clearly, leveraging the collective power of an entire organization is more complicated than saying, “Let’s do it!” It will require leadership that is focused on this new approach to work. Leadership that understands that implementing Kaizen successfully is as much about an organization’s philosophy and culture as it is about specific strategies. Take a minute, and put yourself in the shoes of the front-line workers on your team, and answer this simple question:

If you are not satisfied with your work, how likely is it that you will try to make it better?

Fundamentally, this is the first obstacle any organization hoping to implement a culture of continuous improvement will face. Without the support and involvement of the “shop floor”, your continuous improvement efforts will fail. So, let’s take a look at the components of job satisfaction that you should promote to improve your organization’s chances of Kaizen success:

1. Front-Line Leader Engagement/Effectiveness

Front-Line Leaders include those Supervisors, Team Leaders, Line Leads, Managers, etc. that have direct responsibility for the performance of the people that directly manufacture your product. These leaders influence the largest population of workers in your organization by communicating and implementing corporate goals, initiatives and strategies. If your front-line leadership team is under-prepared for the challenges of the role, and they frequently are, you’ll struggle with even the most basic personnel challenges, much less something as dramatic as implementing Kaizen. One of the first steps should be implementing continuous and incremental skill enhancement programs for leaders on the front line to ensure they understand the fundamentals of leadership:

  • - Leadership by example
  • - Consistency in policies and procedures
  • - Timely and honest (good & bad) feedback with specific corrective actions
  • - Team development

There are many more leadership topics here, but you get the idea.

2. Leadership That Listens

For Kaizen to be successful, the ideas from the “shop floor” need a place to land, so creating a culture of listening leaders is critical and will help the ideas bubble to the surface. Now, managers may find it difficult to hear that legacy methods, processes or procedures that they had a hand in developing are no longer effective, but it’s important that they ignore this bias and be receptive and open-minded to new ideas. Even more that just being receptive, they should actively seek these new ideas through involvement in Gemba walks. Involve people at all levels in the work, and solicit their ideas because different perspectives are incredibly valuable.

3. Teamwork Without Finger Pointing

Continuous Improvement is a living, breathing thing in an organization that cannot exist without teamwork, and for teamwork to be effective, silos must be dissolved and doors at every level need to be open. Mutual respect for the importance of everyone’s role, by everyone on the team is gained by acknowledging that one job is as important as all the others. When failures occur, and they will, they must be viewed as learning opportunities rather than excuses to stop. Two common behaviors that are simply human nature must be overcome:

  • Self interest
    Decisions that are viewed as short term wins for the few are many times bad for the team and the overall effort long term. You’ll need to identify this tendency and coach those individuals or teams right away.

  • Deflect blame
    Mistakes will happen. It’s guaranteed in any continuous improvement effort, and the natural reaction will be to deflect, make excuses or apply some unproven cause. It’s important to own mistakes, not as punishment, but as an opportunity to learn and understand what didn’t work and why so adjustments can be made.

It’s obvious that the involvement of people in the Kaizen process is important, but making assumptions about a team’s preparation for the journey can be a mistake and result in delays, lost opportunities and even stagnation or failure of the entire strategy. It’s our hope that this article helps lay the groundwork for a successful kaizen journey by truly harnessing the power of your organization’s collective knowledge and talent. Success with these people focused strategies now, will better prepare your organization for the revolutionary challenges that lie ahead.

Thanks for reading,

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