Monday, July 28, 2008

Continuous Improvement

If you search for "continuous improvement" in Wikipedia ,you may get redirected to another page "Kaizen". The japanese word 'Kaizen' means 'Improvement'. This concept was launched and popularized by 'Masaaki Imaai' Mr.Imai does not work for any manufacturing companies. He is a management consultant concentrating on the productivity and quality enhancement initiatives rooted in Japan. He is the chairman of 'Cambridge Corporation' - a management consultancy helping western companies to implement Japanese management concepts.
Anybody who conduct a research in Japanese productivity initiatives , will end up in one factory - 'Toyota' . Toyota has enviable record in breakthrough productivity initiatives and quality improvement programmes. I have recently read an article on different continuous improvement initiatives in Toyota. The innovations were simple yet fantastic. When we read the problem and then the solution , we will feel like, it cant be better than that ! But they never stop innovation. They work on improving what they have. That is blended into their work culture and they call it "Continuous Improvement" .
No one can 'achieve' continuous improvement . We can only initiate and maintain that. But when ever an organisation plan to marry this philosaphy , they go with clear goals. Continuous improvement should be 'aligned to business objectives' . We shall not grow in a direction which we dont want to !
Another thing to be clarified by the management is , what kind of quality improvement they are planning -
  • Product Quality
  • Process Quality
 Ultimately process quality improvement only bring profit to the organization and undoubtfully the most basic intention of any business entity is to make profit ! I would suggest any management to adopt "Process Quality Improvement" initiative.
Process Quality Improvement 

Manufacturing is based on the following philosophy:
Raw materials -> Process -> Product

Raw material include physical materials , people , ..etc . Process is the method and sequence of manufacturing, Product is the end result. Assume we have 2 samples of product from 2 different factories. After the quality test it was found that both have same features/quality. How ever when examined , the cost of production for both the samples were found to be different. One company has put better 'methodology' to manufacture the product than other. They effectively utilised the manpower, used proper tools and techniques, eliminated waste and delay and manufactured the product with out compromising the quality. Such a 'Fine tuned' process will not happen in a day. It happened through 'Continuous Improvement' only. Those who deal with the process always quiz better way of doing it , come up with suggestions for improvements, implement thoughts and measure results.
Till the last day they produce they will keep on improving their process. Improvements are normally not 'Drastic' in this philosophy. They are step by step 'enhancements'. Hence there wont be any stoppage in production (atleast no major stoppage!) to implement the new ideas. Each and every employee (from sweeper to CEO!) contributes to this initiative. No bullying, no politics.
There was a great article which i have gone through. An American manager joined Toyota's US plant. He was very enthusiastic and with in a month of service he came up with some improvement project and successfully implemented. In a management meeting , where the Japanese bosses were present , he presented his 'Project report' , highlighting achievements. When he turned back , he saw the 'puzzled' faces of his bosses. One of them asked him "But , what is the problem, where is the problem?"
The American manager was stunned. He felt insulted. Understanding the situation the head of the plant , explained the new manager about Toyota culture.
"We know that you are efficient. That is why we hired you. But in management meetings , were are here to discuss problems"
"Improvements and achievements are part of our job. Many low grade workers in Toyota has come up with fantastic ideas which saved millions.But we wont stop it there celebrating that!"

Welcome to Toyota culture !

This was a phase shift to the American manager , who was familiar with the more 'western' six sigma concepts , where a set of specialist white collor guys jump in to the plant, quiz the employees, take measurements ,play with 'MiniTab' software, conduct 'Hi-Fi' meetings , make flashy presentations and end up with a 'Black Belt' project, which will be well documented and kept in the shelf!
Continuous Improvement is not Goal Setting !
Here people wont over celebrate such initiatives. It is their part of job. Now you will be knowing why Toyota is opening several new plants in US , when its competitors are busy in lay offs and 'down scaling' !

Features of Continuous Improvement 
Different texts may give you different ideas or wordings .. but the basic concept is fine tuning the steps of production to improve flow and reduce waste (Time & money). Let me list a few , which i have read in the Lauri Koskela's paper on "Application of the new production philosophy to construction" - which laid the foundation of  "Lean Construction " and "Lean Construction Institute "  :
  1. Efficiency of flow process
  2. Small steps, detailing and ultimately fine tuning
  3. Involvement of everyone in the company
  4. Internal 'know-how' , best practice
  5. Overcome constraints in 'Variability reduction' or 'Cycle time compression'
  6. Require little investment but great effort to maintain it.
  7. Maintaining the drive (continuous improvement) and improve it
  8. Primarily idiosyncratic (Attitude based) : Embodied in the minds of people, system of equipmens, procedure and the organisation as a whole !
  9. People drive it !

What to measure in Continuous Improvement 
  1. Measure waste
  2. Measure value addition
  3. Measure variance (Defects)
  4. Cycle time
  5. Degree of simplification

How to implement Continuous Improvement

Continuos improvement is not a 'System' like ERP to implement. It is a 'Philosophy' .Any organisation can marry this philosophy by:
  1. Making a management commitment
  2. Taking the message to the worker level
  3. Never quit !
There are increasing effort to bring the Japanese productivity initiatives generally  followed in manufacturing to Project environment. The biggest criticism for this is , the difference in the way both business operates. In projects most of the activities are unique and non repetitive unlike manufacturing. Still effort to absorb best practices are always recommended. Development of 'best practices', 'continuous improvement' , 'Delay elimination ' ..etc are relevent in project scenario as well.

I will be putting more articles on the developing concept of 'Lean Construction'

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