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Does your Continuous Improvement team get pulled into firefighting?

One of the greatest challenges for food and drink industries is staying focussed on continuous improvement to systematically reduce the need for firefighting. Whilst, without a doubt, some companies have made great strides in the right direction, many others have not. Though they start well with the best continuous improvement intentions, their efforts frequently become sabotaged by the urgent need for ‘firefighting’.

Several decades ago, I was invited to join the CI team of a large spirit bottler as they had split their technical team into ‘continuous improvement’ and ‘firefighting’ with the intention that the continuous improvement team would be so effective that they would eventually make firefighting unnecessary. We had our first meeting and agreed a programme with various tasks to be completed by the next meeting, three months hence.

You might guess what happened next! Subsequent meetings were cancelled, as all the continuous improvement team had become completely absorbed in firefighting (exactly the opposite of the company’s best intentions).

So why does this often happen? Any manufacturer working within a busy environment and coping with the numerous supermarket demands, increasing product complexity, short batch runs and frequent changeovers, will already know the answer to this somewhat rhetorical question. It happens because it can and because, to some extent, it always has. Unfortunately, when ‘the random factor’ plays its deadly hand, CI often gets pushed aside in favour of the urgent response.

It’s more than 60 years since Dr Edwards Deming (the founding father of statistical process control) attempted to bring a new world order to quality consistency and efficiency in Western manufacturing and sadly failed to gain much buy-in. Why? Largely because the Western world, at the time, had full order books and were simply too busy to consider new methodologies. So Deming and his colleagues, Walter Shewart and Joseph Duran, took their message to Japan, when Japanese industry, following the ravages of war, was on its knees and its products were seen to be sub- standard.

The Japanese lapped it up and learnt quickly. Over the next few decades they out-performed many Western manufacturers. At the same time as the North American car industry was closing plants around Detroit, new Japanese car manufacturing industries were starting up in the same region. Almost every area of quality goods manufacturing was affected, including televisions, Hifi, telephones, cameras and so on.

It isn’t just that Eastern manufacturers used Deming’s philosophies to make consistently better and more reliable products, but they also improved the tools and techniques beyond the early aspirations of Deming and co.

Following this ongoing work, Toyota championed Lean Manufacturing with valuable contributions such as Taiichi Ohno’s ‘Seven Categories of Waste’. Motorola, on the other hand, significantly improved quality consistency through the development and deployment of Six Sigma principles.

The two methodologies used together give us Lean Six Sigma which is seen by the smart companies as the ideological gold standard and a clear commitment to continuous improvement, or Kaizen, as the Japanese call it.

Within the smart deployment of Lean Six Sigma, there is of course no place for firefighting. That doesn’t mean that just because somebody embarks upon Lean Six Sigma that firefighting will disappear overnight. To do well, it takes time, patience and persistence and it is, by its very nature, continuous.

Fortunately, within Lean Six Sigma there are many tools to help us achieve our objectives. In last month’s article, I touched upon one of the most important structures – DMAIC (define, measure, analyse, improve, control), but there are a couple of steps before DMAIC that help us further. Firstly, if I was running continuous improvement I would begin with a VSM (value stream map) of the entire process. The major purpose of this would be to identify areas of waste and, of course, areas of value added, where it’s just as important to analyse and minimise the areas of waste as it is to optimise efficiency of ‘value added’. Value Stream Mapping helps us achieve our objectives by putting these areas under the spotlight for improvement. Each area could become the subject of a DMAIC programme.

It also helps us to see the big picture of waste and value added to apply SIPOC (suppliers, inputs, processes, outputs, customers). Each one of the SIPOC headings provides opportunities for waste and inefficiencies to creep in, and a myriad of opportunities for firefighting, if we don’t commit to a structured plan such as Lean Six Sigma.

Much of this can be achieved without computerisation and in many places, even today, some companies do try to do all of this manually. It takes longer, it’s much harder, the results come much more slowly and traceability is often inadequate. This is especially true in DMAIC at the measure, analyse and control phases.

Next month we will go into some of these topics in more detail and include an example of a Value Stream Map from a real application.

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