Operational Excellence: Tips for Addressing the Common Pitfalls of Continuous Improvement

By Kevin Duffy, Kepner-Tregoe

Manufacturers pursue operational excellence within an environment of constant change and challenge. Rising costs, regulatory demands and competitive threats from offshore manufacturers are just some of the challenges that drive the need to seek operational improvements.

Today Continuous Improvement (CI), whether through Lean, Six Sigma or many other philosophies, is a fundamental requirement for manufacturing survival, and it is embraced by nearly every organization. Yet too often, CI programs fail to deliver. While there are some common CI pitfalls, the best organizations avoid them by systematically taking the following actions:

1. Use resources wisely. If not carefully managed, CI can result in initiative overload. Six Sigma, Lean and their many variants have spawned huge numbers of projects and activities. We at Kepner-Tregoe have seen it over and over again – trying to execute too many projects in an unfocused manner is a sure way to kill the value that CI can deliver. Given the lean nature of today’s organizations, when people are spread over too many responsibilities, projects slip and operations suffer. A managed portfolio of projects—that are appropriately resourced—can bring a badly needed dose of reality to CI efforts.

2. Act strategically. Optimizing performance is often claimed as a substantial victory, yet it may yield little, true, measureable value. In order to ensure an intelligent use of limited resources, successful organizations uncover those opportunities most relevant to the desired improvements. Our customers rely heavily on our clear thinking processes for setting priorities, identifying problems and their root causes, making rational decisions and understanding human performance. The goal is to quickly assess where opportunities reside, prioritize what’s most important and formulate a diagnostic approach.

3. Sustain change with performance support. Without a concerted effort to ensure sustainability, performance often regresses after a period of time as people revert back to the previous norm. We have a structured method that addresses sustainability through the human performance system. People, as a rule, will lean towards status quo. At its simplest, performance support ensures that people are supported while making the required change. Sustainability must be built into project work so that change continues to be reinforced and measured going forward.

4. Consider targeted change. CI improvements often focus on transformational, enterprise-level situations that demand massive changes. At KT, we use Targeted Performance Improvement to achieve breakthrough performance. This approach, provides a temporary influx of effort on high-priority opportunities that directly respond to what is happening, while also ensuring sustainable change.

In pursuit of operational excellence, organizations have successfully embraced continuous improvement programs, making CI a manufacturing standard. Avoiding the common pitfalls of an effective CI program, protects your investment and promotes operational strength. In addition, on the road to operational excellence, manufacturers can meet new competitive challenges or gain competitive advantage with focused projects that quickly target and achieve your goals.

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