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Opportunities and Potential Problems in Continuous Improvement

Posted by admin on April 27, 2015

There are many management approaches that quickly become fads and then, almost as quickly, fade into oblivion.  If you’re old enough, “Process Reengineering” may come to mind as one of these.  There have been many others that have come and gone like meteorites over the past 30 years we have been working with manufacturing companies to help them improve quality and productivity.

The trajectory of these approaches is something like this:

  1. Consultant has an idea for strategic or operational improvement
  2. Consultant works with some companies to test the approach
  3. Consultant documents the approach based on client results
  4. Consultant writes an article for Harvard Business Review and receives favorable response
  5. Consultant writes book and goes on speaking tour
  6. Everybody and their brother starts offering a similar product
  7. Every initiative at every company starts to fall under the banner of the approach
  8. The consulting approach gets tarnished because of poor results (often because it has been misapplied)
  9. The trend gets derided in the business press as a failed approach.

But there are other management trends that don’t fade away and show real staying power.  What separates those that last from those that go bust?  Most of the time it is because the lasting approaches become a critical part of the organization and blend seamlessly into the way the company or plant is run.  They don’t need a team of consultants on an ongoing basis.  The approaches become what we call the conduct of operating.  They are just plain common-sense tools that, after a while, no one can remember not using.  Better yet, everyone in the plant thinks that he or she was responsible for making it happen.

When done right Continuous Improvement (CI) fits this bill.  To be honest, when CI first became big news in the quality push of the 1980s, we thought it could be just the latest fad.  Many American companies were jumping on the bandwagon looking for anything that could help improve quality as competition from Japanese products became more intense. But the more we looked at CI, the more we realized it had the ability to make a real impact on how companies operate.  Most importantly, CI had the possibility to capture the thinking of everyone in the plant, not just a few managers, supervisors and engineers who were deemed to know everything.  In fact, it required that those closest to the work be the front line of CI efforts.

Flash forward three decades and CI is still going strong.  When we break down CI we see two fundamental thinking processes, what we call Opportunity – Benefit Analysis and Potential Problem – Risk Analysis:

Opportunity – Benefit Analysis (O-BA) – The ability to identify and capitalize on opportunities for improvement, whether they are incremental improvements or breakthroughs that create a seismic shift in how the company operates.  This ability to act on opportunities for improvement is at the heart of CI.

Potential Problem - Risk Analysis (PP-RA) – The ability to identify things that could go wrong, take appropriate actions to avoid the potential problem (without creating other problems), and develop plans to deal with the potential problem if it happens despite the efforts to avoid it.

The beauty of O-BA and PP-RA is that they are both future-oriented processes that proactively look at opportunities and problems to make CI real.  As we have learned during our careers consulting with many companies, the skills needed to use these processes can be learned by anyone in the plant who is willing to apply a different way of thinking about their work.  It is also ideal for creating a common approach and vocabulary to facilitate CI teamwork.

Companies that have made CI part of their conduct of operating know that this approach pays real dividends in quality, productivity and cost improvement by capturing the best thinking of all employees