Thursday, March 11, 2010

Creating a Culture of Process Improvement

This morning one of the questions posed by readers of IQ Six Sigma posed the following question:

“My department is charged with creating a "culture of process improvement" within our zone. We're struggling with what that looks like once we've created this culture. Looking at the Toyota model, they challenge employees to look for PI opportunities every day. What exactly does that look like, and what measurements should we consider (i.e. number of PI suggestions with managers being held accountable for X number per quarter, etc.) I'd like some ideas.”

My "short" answer (admittedly, this answer could have--and has--filled books):

Well, one thing you for sure don't want to do is set some quota for suggestions. You may already be faced with an uphill battle, because the leadership at your organization is actually the entity that has to create that culture of process improvement. If they are just rolling it downhill like any other MBO, it suggests that they don't know what they are doing.

Toyota does challenge employees with looking for improvement ideas. One of the ways they do that is by implementing them. Most suggestion boxes go unheeded by employees because they go unheeded by management. At companies like Toyota, they use mechanisms such as Quality Function Deployment to communicate the voice of the customer to everyone in the organization. It allows people on the production line a clear line of sight to the mind of the customer and the organization's leadership.

How do you establish this culture? Well, if you have to do it locally, start by knowing that you may not be as successful as you would if your leaders were leading. Empowerment is a big piece of the have to let people know they are empowered to make changes. You have to have mechanisms in place that let changes be approved at the lowest possible level. This doesn't mean that any line worker should be empowered to make design changes that require retooling the entire line without some study, but small local changes should be able to be made and standardized locally, as long as they don't suboptimize the system.

So, start by listening to people. I once found an operator potting an assembly with epoxy, using a pneumatic of the primary quality characteristics in this assembly was that the epoxy had to be free from air bubbles! This line worker had been telling people about it for some time, but no one would listen; after all, an engineer had designed that workstation--who was this uneducated line worker to question the engineers? So, again, listen! Your people have the answers to most of your quality problems. It may take some time before they will talk (because it's a culture change for them, too).

It's not enough just to listen, though, you have to act! If you don't act on what you hear, and act promptly and visibly, soon you won't have anything to listen to. If you listen and act, you'll soon find that you can't keep up with the suggestions for improvement. That will be the beginning of changing the culture to one of improvement.

You also have to be a champion. You have to be out there talking it up, walking the talk, aggressively and visibly removing obstacles to improvement. Align whatever passes for reward and recognition in your zone with PI, to let people know that it's important. Constantly let people know what you value; proactively seek (and take) opportunities to demonstrate those values and beliefs. Measure important process and throughput measures...use SPC so you don't make boneheaded decisions about those measures.

As to what to measure to gage progress along the cultural change path...well, there are lots of things you can measure. Probably the most important are results and employee morale. If your error rates, rework rates and scrap rates are going down and your throughput is going up, it's working. You can also measure suggestions received; but you should use that number as the basis for a perhaps more important metric: percentage of suggestions implemented. This is certainly not an exhaustive list...there are numerous things you can measure. Deming said that the most important numbers are unknown and unknowable; this is what makes measuring what we can measure so important.

Standardize, do 5S, start holding 5-10 minute meetings at every cell every day, to go over quality metrics, suggestions entered, suggestions implemented (and get ideas for implementing suggestions), recognize people for advancing continuous improvement.


  1. Very good post Rip! Alot of these things we have started or are in the process of starting.

  2. To add a bit of spice to the 'stew', there are seven major categories around which measurements can be built: client or community satisfaction; Accuracy of services; timeliness; responsiveness or speed; safety of the environment; associated revenue or profitability, cost of services, etc.

    The point is that each major area should be analyzed to determine which outcome indices are appropriate. This will largely depend upon the purpose or objectives of the function being performed.