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The Right Process Matters - 8 Continuous Improvement Techniques for Organizations
Industry Insights
The Right Process Matters - 8 Continuous Improvement Techniques for Organizations
8 techniques to help your company discover a path to improved efficiency and much more.

We’ve all been there, stuck in a situation where we know what we need to do but just don’t have the right tool to do it.  It is often frustrating and prevents us from making the best choice for solutions.  And the wrong approach can often cause more damage than it fixes.

Continuous Improvement (CI) is a lot like the above example.  Use the wrong method and the initiative goes nowhere.  But use the right technique and a company can discover a path to improved efficiency, cost savings, waste reductions and so much more.

While there are numerous methodologies and broader philosophies, such as Lean and Six Sigma, that can be deployed to drive change within an organization, it is the techniques and mindsets used on the front lines that make the difference and define success. Here, we will examine some of the most effective tools in building a Continuous Improvement toolbox to effectively move the CI effort forward.

Continuous Improvement Methods

CI methods can be broad or narrow in scope and function.  However, the purpose of each is to provide a structure and framework for those functional areas or areas to succeed.  To understand how different methods work in different situations, here are some of the most effective CI techniques for your toolbox.

1. PDCA

Sometimes, the simple techniques matter most. PDCA is a method for carrying out change. It's best used when starting new improvement projects, developing new processes (or improving old ones) or for mapping a repetitive process. PDCA stands for Plan-Do-Check-Act.

  1. Plan - Planning helps build teamwork and lays out the path for change.
  2. Do– Doing can be started first on a small scale as a test and then moved to full implementation when the process change is proven.
  3. Check– This is the analysis stage where the test is reviewed, and the results are passed to the team.
  4. Act – This is where the action is taken to implement the change broadly within the operation. Or, if it did not work, to repeat the cycle until a working model is achieved and can be implemented.

2. Standard Work

Left alone, operators and technicians will follow their own path to complete critical productive tasks. Without guidance and documentation, this work may be completed inefficiently. Standard work is a process where the most current and most efficient process for completing tasks is documented and displayed for all to follow. Once shared, this task should be completed the same way every time. However, there is flexibility within the standard work process. When new improvements are proven, standard work can be updated to include new steps to compete tasks more efficiently.

Learn how WorkClout helps with Standard Work in the video below

3. Gemba Walks

Gemba walks are in-person walks between management and subordinates to understand the difference between what was assumed to happen and what actually happens. It is a way to create engagement at a personal level rather than a dry and process driven list.  It provides the opportunity to understand and bridge the difference between intent and reality. Gemba walks allow changes to be made based on real-time, real world observation and feedback, or, to bring a process back to its original design if that process has varied.

4. The 5 Why's

Root cause analysis is often used to detect the right correction for commonly occurring problems, especially those that happen over and over. Developed as part of the suite of tools within lean by Toyota in the 1970s, the 5 Why’s can be used within the Plan phase of PDCA. The team first defines the problem and then asks “why” the problem occurs.  The process is held to factual reasons and with each step in the progression, additional “why’s” are asked until the team arrives at a root cause where a solution can be defined and implemented.  This tool is effective even when there is more than one root cause and can branch out to each until drawing all into a cohesive solution.

5. Kata Coaching

Sometimes, teams can become discouraged with negative group think that doesn’t allow them to see their way out of a problem. This method understands that behavior driven process issues are also part of the problem in many organizations. In Kata Coaching, challenges are set for team members to encourage them to work to improve daily. It is a way to help drifting teams refocus and help reengage employees who may have deviated from the process or mission. It helps drive focus within the team and allows team members to think for themselves and be proactive.

6. Muri, Mura, Muda

While considered a core part of lean methodology that focusses on waste, the 3 M’s are different in meaning. Each is a type of waste, but they signify different problems within the process that need correcting.

  1. Muri - Muri is defined as overburden, when people or equipment are pushed beyond 100% to achieve tasks. This can lead to breakdowns and fatigue.
  2. Mura - Mura is defined as unevenness. This can be different cycle times between operators, inaccurate process times per product or customer demand.
  3. Muda - Muda is most understood as the classic definition of waste. This can include defects, overproduction, waiting, unused skills, transport, unneeded inventory, unnecessary motion and excess processing.

7. Value Stream Mapping

Without a map, it’s often hard to get where you’re going. However, many manufacturing operations simply proceed without such guidance. Value mapping is especially important in that it encourages the team to consider the entire system. By mapping out the value steps, teams can identify which steps are unnecessary or need to be changed. Once the processes are redesigned, all that is left are tasks and steps that add value to the process. It is a tool for global collaboration on the entire ecosystem that drives production.

8. CI Software

There was a time when logbooks, calculators and good old-fashioned notes allows continuous improvement projects to thrive. There was so much waste and excess in processes that it was easy to monitor. But with today’s high-speed production equipment, short lot mass customization and a sea of data coming in through technologies such as IoT, CI software can help organize and free up the flow of information. By standardizing and analyzing data, trends and micro trends that would not have been recognized previously can now be brought under control and optimized as well. Software also helps un-silo data and direct it to all who can use it to improve internal processes.

Managing the Methods

Regardless of the methodology chosen and the tools used, it is important to manage them correctly. This keeps the toolbox flexible and agile enough to attack any problem and focuses on managing to the best business practices. In managing the methods available, three processes are important.

  1. Set implementation and strategy - The strategy for management for any CI method should be confined to those that meet business requirements. Managers should define the strategy and goals and make sure that the CI methods used are geared toward those goals.
  2. Identify and pursue opportunity - Identifying the opportunity for continuous improvement requires identifying what an ideal, fully optimized operation would look like. By finding this “gap to perfect”, analysis can be used to develop and use the method required to see it through to that ideal.
  3. Embed essentials - The essentials mean that the team is not only versed in how to perform specific tasks to complete their job within the production flow. It also means that they are repeatedly engrained with the understanding of how these methods are considered part of the CI process. Team members should understand as part of the culture that these are the expected tools and results that drive the tasks, they are responsible for.

While it is never more frustrating to open a toolbox and find that the wrong tool is there or that a needed tool is missing, it is highly satisfying to discover the opposite.  By using the right method and training employees to use them as part of a comprehensive culture of change, continuous improvement can be just that – continuous.

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