Manufacturing Issues

Business Strategy and Continuous Improvement
Mike Waight, IMEC

It’s not uncommon to be called into a manufacturing facility to discuss the implementation of a cost containment or quality improvement project. Whether it’s pricing pressure from a key customer or an opportunity to eliminate non-value-added activities, a growing number of Peoria area manufacturing leaders are embracing the tenets of continuous improvement as a means to increase capacity and delivery. However, the complexities of global competition and the changing nature of supplier-customer relationships demand that these “shop floor” efforts also must align with the company’s overall strategic vision.

“In most cases, it would be very easy to just jump in and do a Value Stream Mapping project or a shop-floor re-organization because the need is certainly there in the plants we visit,” said Mark Baer, manufacturing specialist for IMEC and a member of the Lean Team. “But we’re asking the company leaders to take a step back and assess where the business is going and what other pieces may need to be addressed to accelerate the improvements and maximize the results.”

This type of strategic planning is rooted in the concept that communication among employees—from management to operators—is critical to the successful deployment of any continuous improvement initiative. Effective facilitation models get people to talk to one another and break down barriers in a constructive manner. It forces the team to look at the whole operation and identify specific actions that must be taken to overcome weaknesses and meet the opportunities.

“You can have the best solution for improving inventory turns or cutting wasteful processes, but unless the employees buy in and understand what these changes will mean to them personally, it will not be effective,” Baer said. “When people have done things one way for many years, change is slow to come. But once they understand the intent of the changes, the goals, and how they will be measured, they see that lean will only help them be more effective contributors to the success of their company.”

We’re seeing increasing demand for the “strategy side” of continuous improvement, with some amazing transformations in how companies view their competitive advantages. Getting into the right markets with the right products at the right time is so important. This thinking has to be done to complement the operational improvements.

Aligning strategies with company vision and the realities of the global market often proves to be the great differentiator between industry leaders and struggling survivors. However, it’s estimated that only 30 percent of small manufacturers have a clear and compelling plan for the future of their companies. Understanding customers and how products add value in the supply chain is essential. IBI