In the repair shop, for instance, mechanics always worked on parts as they came in, regardless of urgency or availability of tools. The CI team arrived and created a workflow management program in which someone was assigned to evaluate each part as it arrived to determine repair timing, required tooling and so on. “It worked really well for three months and then the CI team left and it disintegrated. Mechanics went back to just grabbing the next item on the shelf and fixing it,” Prentice says.
After Prentice helped the organization's leaders understand the importance of gaining cultural acceptance and technician buy-in, they disbanded the CI group and integrated its people into various divisions. From within the divisions, the group members worked hand-in-hand with technicians to include them in idea generation, planning, goal-setting and every other aspect of CI. By seeking the buy-in and contributions of mechanics, two years later, throughput in that same repair shop has seen sustained improved of about 60% with no change in staffing or capital investment.
“If continuous improvement is driven by someone else and it's a third party acting on a department, no one will be excited,” Prentice says. “But if it is homegrown, you'll get enthusiasm.”
It comes down to who is creating the value—managers or workers—adds Laurent Thomas, an Oliver Wyman partner in France. “Managers tend to over-control workers, with employees at the service of managers,” he observes. “Continuous improvement puts the manager at the service of employees on the line.”
Not long ago, Thomas worked with an organization where employees “were given a lot of description about what they should do, what steps to take, how long each step should take. These descriptions were written by a guy in an office who wasn't even in the shop,” Thomas says. “By involving the employees and asking them what should be done, we improved the output of the line by 20%.”
If your CI processes aren't working, it may be time to hit the “pause” button and take a hard look at whether your front-line technicians are fully involved and engaged in the efforts. “A continuous improvement program that's not accepted culturally squanders employee creativity,” Prentice concludes. It also squanders its chances of success.