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7 tips for continuous improvement

Jul 1, 2011 12:00 AM

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Our company has spent the past two years implementing lean manufacturing principles throughout our operation. During this time, we've learned a lot and realized tremendous benefits. The biggest benefit printers will notice with lean is a reduction in process lead times, resulting in lower costs, higher quality and improved on-time deliveries. This translates into greater customer loyalty and a higher profit margin.

Here are seven things that were most helpful to us as we integrated lean manufacturing into our operations.

  • Identify an internal change agent and gain commitment from leadership

    The successful implementation of a lean manufacturing program requires the engagement of company leadership to ensure lean doesn't become the company's latest “flavor of the month” program. We recommend identifying an internal “change agent” who will have overall responsibility for driving your lean transformation. Change won't come easy, so this person must be respected, have good communication skills and the ability to turn pushback into idea generation.

  • Create a lean/continuous improvement steering team

    Within the first year of launching our lean initiative, we created a “Continuous Improvement Steering Team.” To ensure support at all leadership levels, our team consists of vice presidents, directors and managers. It meets on a monthly basis to discuss schedules of lean events, opportunities, vision, needs, deployment strategies and any business conditions that could clash with upcoming lean initiatives.

    In addition, educate your managers and supervisors to lead in the new lean environment. Being a “Lean Leader” is a much different method of leadership than many are used to. Providing this education early on will help avoid miscommunication or misunderstanding regarding your lean program.

  • Consider bringing in a consultant

    We used an outside consultant to train and mentor us on our lean journey. We chose Lean Culture, Inc., who helped us facilitate more than 25 lean events, including Value Stream Mapping, Kaizens, 5S and creating Standard Work (see “Step by step” Consultants instill a key focus on building a culture of daily continuous improvement rather than stringing together individual lean events.

  • Establish and communicate a clear message

    Have a plan to communicate the value of lean throughout your organization. It should not only address the benefits of lean to the company and customers, but also how lean can improve the work life of your employees. A clear vision needs to be repeated regularly to show the company's commitment to lean. We highly recommend that company leaders make lean a part of their everyday pulse checks.

  • Evaluation is key

    One of our first initiatives was to do a value stream map of a product family. This included a diverse team of schedulers, managers, supervisors and employees covering all parts of the company. From this base we could evaluate where we stood and where we wanted to go. We could then use other lean tools to eliminate waste and reduce lead times.

  • Turn employees into problem solvers and improvement specialists

    The most important aspect of lean is to involve employees in developing lean processes. Many times companies create a culture in which the employees don't make the decisions, management does. Then when problems occur, employees are unable to diagnose or solve problems without involving a supervisor. lean reverses that by revolving around employees and looking to them as the improvement specialists.

  • Measure, audit, review and continue to improve processes

    A common saying with our lean program is, “If you can't measure, you can't improve.” Without a baseline, you will not be able to show improvements, so you must measure virtually every process.

Use audits to not only sustain the improvements from Kaizen, but also expose new problems and resolve them with your employees' involvement and input.

Create a culture that continually looks to improve processes — even ones that aren't broken. Through lean you will learn to look at things differently and develop an eye for improvement. The key is to get as many “eyes for improvement” as possible.

Steve Myrvold is vice president of operations for IWCO Direct.

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