The pursuit of perfection in systems and processes has been the key theme of my career for twenty years. Now I’ve read a ton of books, lean books, theory of constraint books, books about how to combine theory of constraints and lean and don’t even get me started on books about six sigma. But earlier in my career I found that not one of those books gave me any pointers on how to move a company from one state to another in terms of culture, or how to create momentum. For sure, I knew about Value Stream Mapping, PDCA cycles and Just in Time but what I was lacking was the secret formula to making lean or any other methodology really work.
Over time I started to have an inkling of what could be the ultimate transformation package. But then I had to find a company where the culture would support the implementation of these ideas.
In the last three years or so here working with Escea I have had the opportunity to pursue perfection in my own way without restriction. As time has gone on we are now seeing the implementation of these ideas and actions transform into excellent tangible business and cultural results.
What we are doing is not unique. Today’s lean gurus are also moving away from the study and implementation of tools. They are seeking the elusive characteristics that still make Toyota a unique performer in terms of improvement success. Authors like Mike Rother, who wrote the ground-breaking book Toyota Kata, have begun to quantify these unique practices and embedded culture into tangible variables so that we can learn and grow from them.
Along these lines, today I want to talk to you about what I believe are the three key requirements for any company to successfully and continuously improve, regardless of the methodology employed.
- Commitment at the top
- A clearly defined and tangible target vision
- Constant development and empowerment of people to change their own work processes
All the tools of lean and other improvement methodologies will not create sustainable improvement culture without these three key areas.
I believe that at Escea we have created to at least some degree all these three conditions and that is largely responsible for the progress we have been making over the last few years. Underpinned by a simple, no frills, minimalist approach to lean, our commitment to these principles is now yielding great results.
Commitment at the top
At Escea, our CEO is known to have the philosophy that the only way to survive is to keep improving. In fact, he believes that standing still is as good as death for companies in business today. Our competitors are not standing still. They have the ability to do everything we are doing and do it better. We are in a race against ourselves and everyone else.
My directives from the top are very clear. Everything We Do Is For Our Customers, Waste Is Wrong, Make It As Lean As Possible. That is all I need to know to do my job. Supporting this is his unshakeable faith that I know what I’m doing (due to all the books I’ve read I’m sure *wink*) and regular catch ups out in the process where the only expectation is that ‘something has changed’. Without this unfaltering commitment and support, improvement culture cannot survive. It does help that our CEO and his co-founders are entrepreneurs and are not afraid of a little risk taking, experimentation and the odd unconventional approach.
A clearly defined and tangible target vision
In the Operations team we have one phrase that guides everything that we do with regards to improvement. What We Sell Today, We Make Tomorrow. This has been our target vision for a few years now and it directs all our improvement activities down a specific channel. You could liken this to changing improvement activities from a shotgun to a laser beam. With our ‘sell today, make tomorrow ‘ philosophy we have changed our processes from multi day batches to daily production and saved hundreds of thousands of dollars in inventory and work in progress, which has reduced by ten days so far. In our facility we are starting to give at the seams for space, but much later than expected, as our focused lean activities have reduced the amount of floor space needed for normal production. More volume is not the issue but our product range diversity is now challenging us. In the last year alone, our sheetmetal folding area has increased productivity by 50% and made batch sizes smaller at the same time. This has saved us from purchasing a high capital value press brake this year as well as not having to add in the operators to go with it despite a 30% increase in production. We did this by finding a way to make today what is required for tomorrow but no more. Our target vision is non-negotiable. We avoid work in progress, excess inventory, overproduction, bureaucracy and paperwork. We identify and problem solve obstacles that are preventing us from achieving our target vision. We are not daunted by the size of these obstacles. We must overcome them in order to achieve our target vision.
Constant development and empowerment of people to change their own work processes
Every day, Escea team members experience every type of waste possible. They wait, they perform extra movements, they experience quality issues, breakdowns and frustration. Just like every employee in every company everywhere. At Escea, we are striving to make sure that every employee can also identify, address these wastes and make improvements, off their own back. We are teaching our team members that they are empowered and even obligated to improve their processes. We remove the obstacles in the way of them doing so. We encourage them to record and celebrate their successes. In this way we are growing our culture so that improvement activities are ‘business as usual’ and not something that is run by the lean department, or the responsibility of team leaders. Waste is everyone’s issue. By encouraging team members to make their lives easier and by giving them the skills and freedom to do so we grow a company of capable, empowered people and tap into the wealth of knowledge and ideas that come from hands on experience at product and process level.
Our improvement journey, our great experiment, is still in its infancy, we have far to go and many obstacles to overcome. We have waste everywhere and our culture still needs a lot of work. Despite this we are moving forward towards our shared target vision, our results are tangible and our enthusiasm for the journey continues to grow. This is almost certainly due to the presence of these three characteristics, commitment from the top, a strong target vision and the empowerment of people to affect their own change.
We are not special. We are just a company of like minded people, in a small city at the bottom of the world, trying to achieve perfection. Anyone with the right support, vision and commitment to empowering others can do it too.