In part one of this three-part series, we established that lean manufacturing can only help you over the long term if you have committed to making it a company wide standard operating policy. If, instead, you make a raft of positive changes during your lean transition and then expect the program to be self sustaining, chances are that employees will slip back into what’s comfortable and easy, rather than what’s efficient and lean. The bottom line? A company that commits to a proactive, continuous lean effort has a far better chance of succeeding.
One major foundation pillar of lean is the sustained support that its initiatives must receive from management. Executive management supports initiatives by showing support for the people running them. When there is no support, workers lose enthusiasm; there is nothing driving them to improve. Any momentum that was originally created will fizzle out.
Management’s responsibilities don’t end there. Since lean is fueled in large part by the people on the plant floor, management must ensure it provides an outlet for employees so they can make suggestions when they note problems in their workspaces. Such problems could include faulty or unnecessary processes, missing tools, even the improper placement of certain pieces of machinery.
Remember, your shop floor workers are your front line people and, as a result, they are the most likely to be both: 1) frustrated by waste and 2) able to quickly benefit from lean improvements.
But how do you empower employees to make their own lean-related suggestions? How do you take these suggestions and put them into practice?
One of the best ways is through Kaizen (continuous improvement) events, or blitzes. A client of mine is a bit of a Kaizen specialist. The company, Winnipeg’s Melet Plastics – a manufacturer of plastic components used for automobiles, medical devices, agricultural equipment and furniture – performs several major Kaizen blitzes a year with many smaller Kaizens with many smaller kaizens happening on a monthly or often weekly basis.
The ones I’ve led have typically been three-day events. We start by getting a given department together and doing some basic training, getting everybody familiar with the latest lean concepts. Then I’ll put them to work. Team members are assigned to do mapping and measurement in their areas in order to benchmark their “current state.” The teams then develop their future desired state based on their lean training by discussing their own ideas for improvement. They might even mock up modified layouts to their work cell or area. In the latter part of the event, we will do trial runs, using some of the new techniques they’ve developed. We usually unearth a few issues that we can’t change immediately, but these are done over the following weeks.
Besides eliminating waste, a Kaizen blitz helps to teach employees to think about improving things all the time, not just when, for example, a manager suddenly asks why there has been a slowdown on a specific line. To try to instill these same qualities in its people, I trained Melet’s entire staff last January on many fundamental lean principles, paying special attention to several supervisors.
We focused on them for a reason. Like many Canadian organizations, Melet had developed one internal champion to coordinate a number of lean projects. Unfortunately, too many questions, concerns and initiatives were being funneled through this person, causing a bottleneck. Melet now is relieving this congestion by spreading the responsibility for lean projects down to mid-level managers and supervisors, training them to a level where they can actually conduct mini-Kaizens on their own. If a supervisor or team leader is unhappy with the way a process is laid out, he/she can organize a half-day session with the department in question to come up with a better way.
Melet has also set up continuous improvement teams – front line people working in various areas – who come in for two extra hours each week (receiving overtime pay) and who are free to work on projects of their choice. The work is generally done just before their shifts so it doesn’t impinge on their day-to-day responsibilities. The teams are given a small budget to implement ideas, some of which come from the company’s employee suggestion box.
Team members might choose to set up whiteboards to improve communications in an area or perhaps install a cleanup station. An initiative could be as simple as running over to Home Depot to get a broom stand or a toolbox. Melet can justify the budgets for these projects, since they have an immediate impact. Normal avenues, which might include going through management to get the requisite funds and filling out paperwork – can take time. Giving employees a mechanism to implement their ideas in a timely fashion, helps to foster a culture of continuous improvement.
Teams have also been known to give out a small monetary award to the employee with the best idea in a given month. This is not a token gesture; it contributes to a general feeling of empowerment among staff members.
And such policies mean employees are less likely to see Melet as a place where they simply arrive, park their brains at the door and do what they’re told. Instead the company continues to fuel the fire on lean by allowing people to make changes on the fly, aside from and outside of a more formalized structure. The fact that this is encouraged by management helps promote and sustain lean, while increasing levels of trust between employees and management.
After all, lean never really ends. It’s a race without a finish line. Keeping the race entertaining – and rewarding – for people over the long term is the best way to ensure they’ll keep participating.