Managing Improvement: A Tale of Two Facilities

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…” So begins Charles Dickens’ classic novel A Tale of Two Cities. So, also, begins our tale of two distribution centers within the same organization.

Johnson Stephens Consulting was engaged to assist the development of a labor management system for a multibillion-dollar corporation with two distribution centers. Stage One of the labor management system is process improvement. This stage involves applying the principles of lean distribution and industrial engineering to develop, test, and implement improved processes, procedures, and methods within the many operating areas of the facilities.

Following training, intensive observation, and data collection; potential improvement opportunities were presented to the management teams of each facility. The same consulting team with direction from the same senior management team facilitated the efforts in both distribution centers. While some improvements were embraced, others were rejected as not feasible due to a variety of reasons. This is where the differences between the two facilities began.

Improvement: A process, not a project

The first distribution center to develop the labor management system was mired in a sea of doubt and reasons why things cannot be done. The story, just like A Tale of Two Cities, is timeless. “We tried that before.” “Our workers can’t handle that.” “We can’t afford that.” Ideas were discussed, tabled, and left for tomorrow – whenever we get there. Very little measurable improvement has been achieved.

The second distribution center demonstrated the true spirit of change and has become the model of success for continuous process improvement. Two consecutive years of 20%-plus improvement of efficiency and productivity per year have demonstrated the potential of a management team with the desire to embrace and pursue opportunities. The process by which the results have been achieved, not the ideas generated, is the secret to their success. The keys to managing continuous improvement are:

  • Teamwork – include the true owners of the process. The acceptance of the front-line supervisor is the single most important success factor in the change management process. The workers performing the task must have input to create ownership of the change.
  • Priority – make process improvement an important practice in the daily routine of the management team. Each manager should have multiple ongoing improvement assignments. Include process improvement in the performance objectives of all managers.
  • Communication – ask, listen, track, promote, and present
  • Continuity – consistently begin new initiatives and follow through to completion, document implemented ideas as well as analyzed and rejected ideas. Present results at scheduled progress report sessions

What’s involved in continually improving an operation? The process incorporates these keys:

  1. establish the leadership team
  2. set goals and expectations
  3. assign responsibilities
  4. establish a recurring progress review time
  5. encourage open dialogue
  6. evaluate results – facts not opinions
  7. adjust ideas to overcome obstacles to success
  8. reevaluate improvement opportunities
  9. implement ideas which prove beneficial
  10. pursue next opportunity

We’ll discuss the details of this process in part two of this article.

Sandy Stephens is principal of Smyrna, GA-based Johnson Stephens Consulting

Read A Tale of Two Facilities, Part Two