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3 Life Lessons to Get Started with Continuous Improvement in Manufacturing

Perhaps the hardest part to get started with continuous improvement is figuring out how and where to start. Change is hard, especially where teams are concerned, and the thought of stumbling at the outset is scary. One continuous improvement (CI) launch in particular comes to mind when I think about the ups and downs of this kind of initiative. Nearly two decades ago when we were first formally launching CI, our team had many conversations that seemed to go in circles. We also received lots of advice — mostly about which tool to embrace first, such as “start with 5S, it’s the foundation.” Why was there so much confusion around something that was to bring clarity to the business? The biggest thing I’ve learned since those early projects is that companies often make things harder than they need to be. But that’s not all I’ve discovered along the way.

I recently revisited videos from about 15 years ago. In those videos team members describe their experience with continuous improvement. It was fun to remember the positive things we accomplished together.

However, it was also hard to listen to great people explain things we didn’t do so well to get started with continuous improvement, and most importantly, to realize how it made them feel. Those missteps were unintentional: they were both a lack of experience and caused by intense pressure to deliver cost savings. Three CI life lessons really stand out in particular.

CI Life Lesson #1: Acknowledge and Respect the Past

“We have a good plant; why are you screwing with it?”
— Phil, production line leader

Phil was one of our many long-time employees. He was someone who threw himself into improvement — he was all-in for making things better. In the video, Phil relayed a story about a kaizen event that included R&D scientists he and his team had never met before. During the event, the scientists quizzed the team about the intricacies of running the production line. His story made me realize that his team must have felt attacked and put on the spot. It was an uncomfortable situation, at least at the beginning.

Looking back, we should have done more to acknowledge previous accomplishments and the years of loyal service from the team. We should have also done a better job of discussing how we wanted to build on their skillset — show them new methods of looking at problems, including bringing in outside eyes. If we had scheduled time before the kaizen for everyone to get to know each other and allow the team to give the scientists a tour of the line, the team dynamics would have gotten off to a much better start.

CI Life Lesson #2: Listen to the Team When They Tell You What Needs to be Fixed

“In the past, we didn’t know what we were going to run, or when we were going to run it.”
— Wendy, production line leader

We decided that our focus with continuous improvement would be reducing changeovers; the business needed to produce more in less time and changeovers was the biggest opportunity. We conducted multiple single minute exchange of dies (SMED) events and successfully reduced changeover time by over 75%, a huge success. Despite our success, the plant was in chaos, it was a very stressful place to work, and the backorder list was growing fast. We had been adding volume again and again and the support systems weren’t keeping up.

We decided to conduct a survey of a cross-section of people in the facility and found that the scheduling process was the biggest issue. It created headaches all day, every day and our improvement focus needed to shift to that issue immediately. Because we zeroed in on the thing causing the most pain, the production teams strongly supported efforts to improve the scheduling process. That broad and robust engagement allowed us to develop a highly effective system. It also showed that we were listening and functioning as a united team. Pride in the improvement was evident, and it served as a springboard for additional improvement efforts.

Looking back, leadership should have gathered more input from the employees up-front. Fixing scheduling should have been as high a priority as reducing changeover. Listening and acting on employee’s biggest frustration would have built more trust from the beginning.

CI Life Lesson #3: Free Up People’s Time So They Can Focus on Improvement

“The operators were filling out the same basic information on 7 out of 9 forms per work order, which equates to 2.5 hours per shift filling out paperwork — can you say waste?”
— Dave, production manager

Get Started with Continuous Improvement in Manufacturing

A year into our Lean journey, we decided it was time to look at the forms associated with production work orders. Like many businesses, we had created more and more paperwork over the years — when a problem cropped up, we created a new form. To make things worse, we typically assigned the task of filling out the paperwork to one of our most experienced operators, which took that person away from the important job of making product. We gathered a team to tackle the redundant paperwork issue and cut the number of forms and the related time for paperwork in half.

Tasks like filling out redundant paperwork are frustrating to operators that want to make a difference by improving things, not filling out paperwork. Too often, that kind of improvement is put on the back burner, because the savings are soft and difficult to quantify. However, it’s exactly the kind of improvement that demonstrates we believe people’s time should be used for high-value activities; it also shows that using lean tools can improve their daily work.

Putting CI Life Lessons to Work in Manufacturing

All these years of continuous improvement implementation have enlightened me on so many things, but mostly that we sometimes make it harder than it needs to be. Like any other initiative, we must acknowledge that we have employees working within a system. While leadership must consider both the objectives and the workers, favoring the people at the outset is the right way to go. Companies that are successful early-on with continuous improvement also:

  • Show respect for employees and their years of service
  • Ask the team which processes they think need to be fixed
  • Relieve people of burdensome, non-value-added work

When companies approach change in this respectful and inclusive manner, continuous improvement can be so much more than a way to improve — it can become an important part of the culture.

TAGS: Culture, Continuous Improvement

Written by Patricia Hatem

Vice President, Advisory Services


For over 30 years, Patricia Hatem has been a change agent helping companies apply continuous improvement. Throughout her career, she has inspired and motivated teams to align culture, processes, and technology, and achieve business results through operational excellence. Her particular expertise spans business process, supply chain, strategy, MOM/MES, ERP, and quality, and she has deep manufacturing experience in consumer goods, chemical, and plastics.

Pat has held strategic and leadership roles in operations, supply chain, purchasing, strategy, process improvement, project management, process engineering, research and development, and environmental for prominent industrial organizations that span CarbonLite, Bemis Manufacturing, Diversey (formerly a division of SC Johnson), SC Johnson, The Dial Corporation, Abbott Laboratories, and Olin Corporation. Pat is a Six Sigma Black Belt and a Lean Leader; she earned a BS Cum Laude in chemical engineering from Missouri University of Science & Technology.

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3 Life Lessons to Get Started with Continuous Improvement in Manufacturing

Perhaps the hardest part to get started with continuous improvement is figuring out how and where to start. Change is hard, especially where teams are concerned, and the thought of stumbling at the outset is scary. One continuous improvement (CI) launch in particular comes to mind when I think about the ups and downs of this kind of initiative. Nearly two decades ago when we were first formally launching CI, our team had many conversations that seemed to go in circles. We also received lots of advice — mostly about which tool to embrace first, such as “start with 5S, it’s the foundation.” Why was there so much confusion around something that was to bring clarity to the business? The biggest thing I’ve learned since those early projects is that companies often make things harder than they need to be. But that’s not all I’ve discovered along the way.

I recently revisited videos from about 15 years ago. In those videos team members describe their experience with continuous improvement. It was fun to remember the positive things we accomplished together.

However, it was also hard to listen to great people explain things we didn’t do so well to get started with continuous improvement, and most importantly, to realize how it made them feel. Those missteps were unintentional: they were both a lack of experience and caused by intense pressure to deliver cost savings. Three CI life lessons really stand out in particular.

CI Life Lesson #1: Acknowledge and Respect the Past

“We have a good plant; why are you screwing with it?”
— Phil, production line leader

Phil was one of our many long-time employees. He was someone who threw himself into improvement — he was all-in for making things better. In the video, Phil relayed a story about a kaizen event that included R&D scientists he and his team had never met before. During the event, the scientists quizzed the team about the intricacies of running the production line. His story made me realize that his team must have felt attacked and put on the spot. It was an uncomfortable situation, at least at the beginning.

Looking back, we should have done more to acknowledge previous accomplishments and the years of loyal service from the team. We should have also done a better job of discussing how we wanted to build on their skillset — show them new methods of looking at problems, including bringing in outside eyes. If we had scheduled time before the kaizen for everyone to get to know each other and allow the team to give the scientists a tour of the line, the team dynamics would have gotten off to a much better start.

CI Life Lesson #2: Listen to the Team When They Tell You What Needs to be Fixed

“In the past, we didn’t know what we were going to run, or when we were going to run it.”
— Wendy, production line leader

We decided that our focus with continuous improvement would be reducing changeovers; the business needed to produce more in less time and changeovers was the biggest opportunity. We conducted multiple single minute exchange of dies (SMED) events and successfully reduced changeover time by over 75%, a huge success. Despite our success, the plant was in chaos, it was a very stressful place to work, and the backorder list was growing fast. We had been adding volume again and again and the support systems weren’t keeping up.

We decided to conduct a survey of a cross-section of people in the facility and found that the scheduling process was the biggest issue. It created headaches all day, every day and our improvement focus needed to shift to that issue immediately. Because we zeroed in on the thing causing the most pain, the production teams strongly supported efforts to improve the scheduling process. That broad and robust engagement allowed us to develop a highly effective system. It also showed that we were listening and functioning as a united team. Pride in the improvement was evident, and it served as a springboard for additional improvement efforts.

Looking back, leadership should have gathered more input from the employees up-front. Fixing scheduling should have been as high a priority as reducing changeover. Listening and acting on employee’s biggest frustration would have built more trust from the beginning.

CI Life Lesson #3: Free Up People’s Time So They Can Focus on Improvement

“The operators were filling out the same basic information on 7 out of 9 forms per work order, which equates to 2.5 hours per shift filling out paperwork — can you say waste?”
— Dave, production manager

Get Started with Continuous Improvement in Manufacturing

A year into our Lean journey, we decided it was time to look at the forms associated with production work orders. Like many businesses, we had created more and more paperwork over the years — when a problem cropped up, we created a new form. To make things worse, we typically assigned the task of filling out the paperwork to one of our most experienced operators, which took that person away from the important job of making product. We gathered a team to tackle the redundant paperwork issue and cut the number of forms and the related time for paperwork in half.

Tasks like filling out redundant paperwork are frustrating to operators that want to make a difference by improving things, not filling out paperwork. Too often, that kind of improvement is put on the back burner, because the savings are soft and difficult to quantify. However, it’s exactly the kind of improvement that demonstrates we believe people’s time should be used for high-value activities; it also shows that using lean tools can improve their daily work.

Putting CI Life Lessons to Work in Manufacturing

All these years of continuous improvement implementation have enlightened me on so many things, but mostly that we sometimes make it harder than it needs to be. Like any other initiative, we must acknowledge that we have employees working within a system. While leadership must consider both the objectives and the workers, favoring the people at the outset is the right way to go. Companies that are successful early-on with continuous improvement also:

  • Show respect for employees and their years of service
  • Ask the team which processes they think need to be fixed
  • Relieve people of burdensome, non-value-added work

When companies approach change in this respectful and inclusive manner, continuous improvement can be so much more than a way to improve — it can become an important part of the culture.

Written by Patricia Hatem

Vice President, Advisory Services


For over 30 years, Patricia Hatem has been a change agent helping companies apply continuous improvement. Throughout her career, she has inspired and motivated teams to align culture, processes, and technology, and achieve business results through operational excellence. Her particular expertise spans business process, supply chain, strategy, MOM/MES, ERP, and quality, and she has deep manufacturing experience in consumer goods, chemical, and plastics.

Pat has held strategic and leadership roles in operations, supply chain, purchasing, strategy, process improvement, project management, process engineering, research and development, and environmental for prominent industrial organizations that span CarbonLite, Bemis Manufacturing, Diversey (formerly a division of SC Johnson), SC Johnson, The Dial Corporation, Abbott Laboratories, and Olin Corporation. Pat is a Six Sigma Black Belt and a Lean Leader; she earned a BS Cum Laude in chemical engineering from Missouri University of Science & Technology.

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