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As a management and training philosophy, continuous improvement can apply to any industry or profession. Its roots, however, lie in manufacturing, where it is still widely implemented today.

The primary goals of continuous improvement in manufacturing include increasing productivity and efficiency, eradicating waste and improving both employee engagement and customer satisfaction. Continuous improvement doesn’t refer to just one management tactic or standard operating procedure; rather, it’s a state of mind cultivated through a host of workplace training methodologies, one that stretches from the plant floor to the executive suite.

What Is Continuous Improvement in Manufacturing?

Broadly speaking, continuous process improvement is the act of taking an established process, breaking it down to its component parts, building it back up using only the essential parts and committing to making incremental improvements over time.

The foundation of continuous improvement in manufacturing is the Japanese concept of kaizen. Kaizen is both a philosophical approach to work and a professional training methodology that leads workers in making small, daily changes that result in major changes over time.

This philosophy serves as an antidote to sweeping organizational changes that leave no room for experimentation or input from team members — the people who actually do the work. An incremental, perpetual approach to improving a process can help changes “stick” while eliminating many of the risks of making one massive leap forward. This gradual change mindset also allows the work to continue while employees learn on the job, or train within their industry.

Some well-known approaches to continuous improvement in manufacturing include lean, Standardized Work and Training Within Industry (TWI), the program developed by the U.S. Department of War during World War II to quickly train a brand-new workforce, many of whom had never worked in factories before.

Continuous improvement solutions are not meant to be one-size-fits-all, but are instead intended to accommodate the unique circumstances of a specific issue, workforce, organization or industry.

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Goals of Process Improvement in Manufacturing

Today’s manufacturers are dealing with a handful of unprecedented challenges including inflation, supply chain constraints, labor shortages and high employee turnover. Implementing a continuous improvement plan can not only mitigate the immediate effects of these concerns, but can help an organization become more resilient, agile and competitive for years to come.

The intent is that, by successfully adopting a continuous improvement mindset, organizations can achieve multiple goals at once, including:

  • Eliminating waste (space, materials, time, talent, etc.)
  • Improving product quality
  • Reducing defects
  • Establishing process ownership
  • Lowering operating costs
  • Creating more value for the customer
  • Maintaining a safe workplace
  • Standardizing processes
  • Improving training and onboarding
  • Increasing production efficiency
  • Fostering operational excellence
  • Building a culture of continuous improvement

For example, a manufacturing plant that successfully adopts Standardized Work could start producing higher quality goods on a faster timeline while reducing overhead and increasing their and their customers’ ROI, all while maintaining a safe workplace that employees want to come back to every day.

In short, manufacturing companies that implement continuous improvement methods should expect to see its effects throughout the entire production process.

Methodologies & Tools for Continuous Improvement in Manufacturing

There are many well-known strategies, approaches and methodologies for continuous improvement, many of which are related to or based on one another. Many are versatile enough that they can be employed as stand-alone programs or in tandem with others. Below are some of the most common methodologies used in manufacturing.

  • Lean — Perhaps the most well-known philosophy in manufacturing, a lean approach to workplace operations is designed to deliver the greatest value to the customer with the most efficient use of resources. The lean philosophy is built on the primary principles of identifying both value and waste, then working to create more value while eliminating waste from processes along the way.
  • Six SigmaSix Sigma leverages data to build a plan for process improvement and quality management using one of two frameworks: DMAIC or DMADV.
    • DMAIC is used to improve an existing process that isn’t producing the desired results:
      • Define the problem
      • Measure the current process, gather data, establish a baseline and validate measurement capability
      • Analyze the data to identify waste and root causes of defects in the existing process
      • Improve the process
      • Control the process by determining how the improvements will be communicated to the relevant users
    • DMADV is used when creating a new process or product:
      • Define goals and deliverables of the process
      • Measure the factors that are critical to the end goal
      • Analyze and identify high-level concepts that will best meet the customer’s expectations, then select one to refine
      • Design a new process in detail that will meet the customer’s expectations
        Verify that the customer’s needs are met through the newly designed process or product
  • Standardized Work — Standardized Work defines “the one best way” to complete any given process. Rather than strip workers of their autonomy, standardization provides common reference points for the way teams think, observe, interact, perform tasks and operate equipment on the job, which increases efficiency, communication and safety.
  • Just-in-time manufacturing (JIT) — A manufacturing concept in which each process produces only what is needed for the next step, creating a continuous flow that builds to a desired output. The goal is to have just the right amount of inventory on hand at the right time, eliminating both surpluses and shortages. JIT was developed by Kiichiro Toyoda, the founder (and second president) of Toyota Motor Corporation.
  • Toyota Production System (TPS) — The gold standard for continuous improvement in manufacturing, TPS is a combination of just-in-time manufacturing and the philosophy of jidoka, or automation with “a human touch.” For example, when a problem occurs, automated equipment will stop immediately, preventing defective products from leaving the assembly line and enabling workers to address the problem. In this way, workers can utilize more nuanced and specialized skills to solve issues that a machine cannot.
  • Visual management — Visual management tools are used to translate manufacturing operations into easy-to-understand graphic overviews. An example would be a Standard Work Sheet, which maps out the physical steps in a process, or a kanban board (more on this below).
  • 5S — A lean tool that establishes specific steps for each work process: sort, set in order, shine, standardize, sustain. (A sixth S, for safety, is sometimes added.)
  • Kanban — A visual tool used in just-in-time and lean manufacturing to track production volumes and order more parts and materials. Kanban boards ensure that plants only produce enough to meet customer demand, and nothing more.

Other methodologies and tools that are often rolled into one of the above strategies include Value Stream Mapping and SMED (Single-Minute Exchange of Die).

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Challenges to Continuous Improvement in Manufacturing

Continuous improvement programs are not a magic cure-all, nor are they an immediate fix for long-term, systemic issues within an organization. Like any proposed changes, process improvement efforts will likely be met with both internal and external challenges.

External challenges — those beyond anyone’s control — may include:

  • Inflation
  • Supply chain interruptions
  • Raw material shortages
  • Major world events (e.g. COVID-19)
  • Labor shortages
  • Poor sales and demand forecasts

Fortunately, part of the purpose of implementing continuous improvement measures is to embed agility and scalability into all operations. When there is a shortage of skilled labor, existing team members can upskill or reskill to meet specific needs; when there is a materials or equipment shortage, a lean framework should enable teams to continue with a “skeleton” operation.

Internal challenges — those that arise within the organization — can include:

  • Employee resistance to change
  • Lack of leadership buy-in
  • Attempting a copycat approach
  • Hidden or unidentified losses
  • Unplanned downtime

The first thing companies need to understand about continuous improvement is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. What worked for the Toyota Corporation is not guaranteed to work for your organization; every company must build its own plan for improvement, either internally or with an experienced training partner.

Likewise, process improvement is not likely to work without one hundred percent support from leadership, management and frontline employees. Before embarking on a new training program or improvement initiative, all parties involved must understand and agree with the need to change and the methods proposed.

Just like with labor or equipment shortages, established, lean contingency plans should enable employees to work around unplanned downtime and remain as productive as they can. As for unidentified losses, a continuous improvement mindset should serve to eradicate all waste with time.

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How to Implement Continuous Improvement in Manufacturing

It’s best not to limit a continuous improvement plan to a single problem or area of an organization — that’s not what these methodologies were designed for. Instead, adopting a process improvement plan is about developing a new mindset, one in which every member of an organization is alert to potential waste and empowered to propose changes.

Every methodology — be it TWI, Standardized Work or lean — proposes its own approach to training employees and making changes. However, any manufacturing organization that implements a continuous improvement plan should follow the same general steps:

  • Identify the objective — Determine the specific goals of an improvement program, including establishing KPIs that will indicate success. Goals could include higher productivity, greater ROI, higher employee engagement and retention, fewer workplace safety incidents, etc.
  • Establish the implementation process — First, make sure leadership is aligned with and supportive of the reasons for change. Then, define ownership of each part of the implementation process. Once everyone understands their roles, it is possible to estimate a timeline.
  • Communicate the process and the benefits — Before embarking on any changes, ensure all employees are aware of and understand the need for change. Clearly communicate the projected benefits — the goals and KPIs — and honestly answer any questions that arise.
  • Monitor and measure outcomes — Establish a means of monitoring progress and measuring outcomes once the new tools and processes are in place. Using digital management software wherever possible, design auditing processes, establish benchmarks for success and practice and perform root cause analysis as necessary.
  • Review and celebrate — Once your teams have started practicing process improvement on the job, stop at a predetermined interval and review your organization’s progress using your KPIs. See which goals have been achieved, which need to be adjusted and make a point to celebrate your team’s successes and achievements.

One of the biggest challenges to implementation is determining how to keep operations running smoothly while developing and deploying new process improvements. Here, an expert training partner can be invaluable — not only are they a resource for proven training methodologies, but they can help your organization plan for improvements without causing interruptions.

If you’re inspired to see what continuous improvement might look like in your manufacturing organization, reach out to TWI Institute to start a conversation. Our Senior Master Trainers and implementation experts are on hand to answer any questions.


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