Continuous Improvement on the Mechanism of Metal Gears.

My last article was titled Continuous improvement programs for businesses – big or small and covered how to incorporate continuous improvement processes in a general way. But I didn’t give too many hints about what continuous improvement at Whip Mix looks like. Hopefully the following details will inspire you to visualize what can work for your company!

As an almost 100 year old company (1919-2019), we have a long, rich history of innovation and refocusing our product line to keep up with our customers’ needs. That rings true for what processes and tools we’ve used for helping identify problem areas and then solving them. Over the years we’ve gone through: Kaizen events, Total Quality Management (TQM), Lean manufacturing, employee suggestion programs, project management (PMI), and many others. Our culture changes with time, and so we have to readjust to continue to provide tools to our team members.

How do we identify areas we want to improve?

We use an employee suggestion program that was inspired by another family business, Jasper Engines and Transmissions, and morphed it into our own. We call it the WIN (Whip Mix Improvement Network) program. Here is how it works:

  1. Any team member can make a suggestion about how to improve a problem or opportunity they identify in their area, or another area.
  2. The idea is vetted by a supervisor, who gives the team member a five dollar equivalent as a token of appreciation (another program, called the Pocket Praise program, allows team members to say thank you with five dollar equivalents that can be redeemed through HR).
  3. The idea can be approved and moved along, or rejected.
  4. If the idea is rejected, a higher level than the team member’s supervisor must be involved to understand why it was rejected and to communicate back to the team member. We strive to implement 250 WIN ideas each year, and we have 170 team members – it’s a lofty goal!

Not every improvement idea is generated through the WIN program though – there are times that a supervisor will write a change request, which is approved by department heads, to move the needle a little faster.

How do we work through finding a solution?

Sometimes the solution is really obvious, and sometimes we only know we have a problem and a solution seems difficult to figure out. If it’s obvious, don’t belabor the point – just move on to implementation.

If it’s not so obvious, there are several methods to get there. The people affected by the problem have to be in the same room for good communication. From there, asking the group if we really know the problem’s root cause can help start the conversation. A common method to getting a root cause is to ask 5 Why’s – for example, why is this problem occurring (asked 5 times). Once you know the root cause that you’re attempting to solve, the group can do brainstorming to have a judgement-free zone for open conversation to find all possible solutions. It does help to do some information gathering – this might mean statistics if the problem is quality related, or research on best practices if it’s an efficiency issue (for example). If you know your root cause and all the possible solutions, then the group can sift through the pro’s and con’s of each solution to choose the best one.

How do we implement the solution?

If you took your time to find the right solution, then implementation should be fairly easy to plan out. At Whip Mix, we generally standardize the change by doing a Change Request – this standard form is reviewed and signed by Department managers, and the implementation plan should be agreed upon in steps. If everyone knows the plan, then you won’t have surprises or unintended negative consequences for an affected department.

How do we follow up to make sure the solution really solved the problem?

Once a change is implemented, it can be really easy to move on to the next problem and forget this step. Don’t fall into that trap – make sure you’re setting a reminder or a follow up meeting with the group to check in. At that check in, ask questions like:

  • Has the problem resurfaced?
  • Have you seen improvement?
  • Are we meeting the metrics we hoped to?

At this point, the WIN or Change Request would be closed and filed, so we can move on to the next issue! For some team members, continuous improvement might feel like a side job, but the hope is that a really well-oiled company will have team members that see continuous improvement and critical thinking as a part of their everyday job.

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