Continuous improvement hangs on total staff engagement

Posted on 10 Aug 2009 by The Manufacturer

Continuous Improvement process (CIP, or CI) is a management process where delivery (customer valued) processes are constantly evaluated and improved in the light of their efficiency, effectiveness and flexibility. The absolute key factor to achieving continuous improvement is thorough engagement between management and shopfloor staff, say consultants at Suiko.

Time and time again a key message that came across in a recent survey by business consultancy Suiko, called ‘What does operational leadership mean in this time of recession?’, was the need to engage everyone in the organisation in order to achieve a sustainable improvement programme.

This article will look at how organisations are addressing the challenge of fully engaging employees to ensure they achieve the sustainable continuous improvement efforts for the business that today’s conditions demand. Suiko devised a process for identifying operational excellence, the WHY-WHAT-HOW cycle (see fig 1).

Taking your employees with you is vital

Within most for-profit organisations, from the security booth to the board room, employees at every level want the same thing, which in the current climate might simply be to survive or keep their jobs. Beyond survival they want profit and growth and in the context of Continuous Improvement (CI) they want to improve and they want that improvement now.

There are countless examples of lean transformations and continuous improvement programmes where failure to win over the hearts and minds of everyone has resulted in sub-optimal results. Many manufacturers have seen the results of tools-based programmes where people are directed, but not engaged, where there is a lack of alignment of objectives between management and staff and a disconnect between results and practices.

In contrast, businesses with the most successful continuous improvement programmes generally have leaders who show empathy for and engage with people.

There are recurring themes in successful, sustainable continuous improvement efforts, but it is leadership that is most important. If the top leaders show every day that they respect and value everyone, their contribution and ideas and that they care about their staff well-being, it will foster an environment that will encourage engagement.

Chilled food group Uniq Prepared Foods is a good example. With Suiko’s help, Uniq has targeted CI as a strategic driver to achieve profitable growth (under the banner of the Uniq Operating System — UOS). CI is being embedded across the UK operation – Uniq manufactures in several countries. Mark Salisbury, Uniq’s UK lean director, says: “We have made a significant investment in building the UOS methodology and developing our people with the aim of enhancing and realising sustainable improvements. At the beginning of a profound change programme, continual support through recorded time on the floor by the leaders of the organisation is a pre-requisite for successful launch and putting in place the sustainable foundations’’.

To maximise continuous improvement, the direction has to be endorsed from the top. It is the role of the senior leadership to provide the vision and set the strategy, reinforce the vision and demonstrate visible commitment to the agreed business priorities and values – to lead by example. Workers will respond positively and be willing to participate and engage in a new way of working if there is clarity of direction and a compelling reason to change. But turning people’s enthusiasm and energy into engagement demands attention, focus, and in many instances a different leadership style.

The principles to establish the base on which to improve

Fostering engagement to maximise CI result can start from Day One, but can take a long time before the necessary practices become habitual and for the change to be sustainable. It requires the basic building blocks to be established (see fig 2).

Salisbury at Uniq continues: “The UOS methodology embraces the core principles of CI: measurement, involvement, focus and problem-solving to specifically tackle reductions in cost per case and improvements in overall equipment effectiveness. Our results have vindicated our decision to change the way we work. Not only have our results significantly improved and our people have developed, but we can also see that we are in the first few years of long term sustainable profitability.” The case for committing to the development of a CI mindset appropriately should be based on the logic of adopting a structured approach, which when applied will be the ‘way of working’, not an addon ‘initiative’.

Maintaining the necessary pace while embedding a sustainable solution

Calling for change will inevitably require changes at every level. Delivery of successful CI results depends on the organisation’s ability to develop an holistic approach to improvement, incorporating process understanding with employee engagement. Good CI results will produce an integrated, joinedup programme that will lead operations on a sustainable and common journey to operational excellence of which CI is just one part.

The Suiko model (see fig 3) provides the ‘HOW’ part of the cycle and incorporates four key elements that must be brought to bear to ensure sustainable and accelerated change.

The programme must be a strategic priority, have a clear strategic FRAMEWORK that is aligned to the business vision and sets out the roadmap for the journey. The framework will help to direct focus and should provide guidance to what needs to be done.

People need to have the right tools to deliver the expected results; the TOOLS & TECHNIQUES when used appropriately will help them see more clearly, measure, focus, problem solve, collaborate and as a result be more effective. Ultimately, this can develop into a group operating system that is accessible and available to everybody.

The programme must be driven; management needs to apply energy and attention to the critical activities to MAKE IT HAPPEN. This requires robust programme management and includes activities such as governance, tracking and strong change management.

To mobilise the organisation and ensure that CI is embedded in its widest sense requires a balanced approach to implementation.

Each element of the approach must run in parallel.

Jim Dobell, vice president and general manager of US plastic packaging and materials handling company Ropak, says of CI: “Structured commitment to continuous improvement and engagement of all employees is the most powerful tool managers have at their disposal. Adopting a consistent approach across the business with a common methodology has helped Ropak realise results through CI quickly. CI is an integral part of our manufacturing strategy and is led from the top. We have sought to engage with people at all levels and across all functions to reinforce the message that this is the way we do business.”

Short term wins key to staff engagement

Uniq’s Salisbury boils down why the company has been able to engage with the majority of their people to three key factors: “Firstly, getting commitment and resourcing at a senior level. Secondly, a clear, simple plan that educates and is continually reinforced by the leadership’s behaviour through all levels of the organisation and finally, success – you need some short term wins because along the journey you occasionally take a wrong turn and in a time where short termism is paramount, a sustainable programme must deliver results.”

CI is more about a mindset than tools (about 80:20 ratio), about developing a culture where the organisation’s leaders show a visible commitment to CI; leading by example and exhibiting enabling BEHAVIOURS will help foster employee engagement. Self discipline and ownership are key attributes for everyone, for it is this that maintains the processes’ sustainability.

Case Study

Patak’s Food

Patak’s Food did a scoping exercise to select the best team to execute CI and to train them in CI analysis. Senior team members were surprised by the success of the exercise.

Having acquired Patak’s Food, based at Leigh, Lancashire, AB World Foods have already successfully completed the integration of the business. The business is growing and has ambitious future plans. Andrew Downie, head of manufacturing, was keen to put a stake in the ground and, supported by Suiko, worked with the site team to map out a future vision of operations.

Keen to engage the staff in defining the future state he sought a solution that developed a core team of people from the start.

The scoping exercise involved training in key tools, including mapping and analysis techniques, and managing change. Downie says: “We wanted to involve a cross-section of functions as well as people from different levels in the organisation. The activity exceeded our expectations. We’ve learnt what quality [people] we have in the business, people who care.” Michelle Birchall, improvement manager at Patak’s, reinforced the message. “The teams were already willing to get involved, but the enthusiasm and commitment from the operators in the focus areas was that much greater when they really understood the opportunities. By working with data and talking in pounds [£], we were able to have open discussions and get to the bottom of some key issues.” Tom Parkinson, production co-ordinator, adds, “More importantly, the analysis was followed by some immediate action on the ‘just stop it’ and ‘just do it’ items, rather than adding to the wish-list. It demonstrated that by working as one team with the same objective [to reduce waste] and making time for improvement, we were able to resolve the issue within a few days.

Ordinarily this may have been something seen as too difficult or given to one individual to resolve and may have taken months. By having the right people looking at the problem we came up with a better solution. On this one opportunity there are tangible annualised savings of £80,000. It required us to involve the line team too and there was real buyin to the team result”.

Downie concludes: “The quality of the ideas surprised me, surprised us all.

If there are three things to do differently going forward they are: firstly, we will dedicate time for CI, it forced us to step back from the day-to-day ‘fire fighting’ – and the factory kept going without us! Secondly, continue to do more ‘go see’ and encourage others. We proved to ourselves the value and benefit of seeing with our own eyes and, more importantly, it provided the platform to engage with everyone. Finally, plan better what we want to do to improve and get the team aligned to the ‘one’ plan.” There is now a real energy within the delivery team and a commitment from the site executive to support the change by following a process to accelerate the change. A key output from the scoping exercise was a strategy framework that the delivery team signed up to; it balances the drive for results with embedding new practices. They recognise that the challenge will be to maintain momentum and deliver real sustainable change.