You’re Doing Continuous Improvement Wrong
When we think of a successful team, we often think of group cohesion and aligned goals and values, but according to Jonathan Griffiths, Director of Focus on the Process, that’s not enough.
Understanding purpose and getting behind the mission to improve every day is what truly constitutes a successful team.
On this episode we talked about:
– Lean leadership
– Continuous improvement methodology
– Why continuous improvement fails
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Check out the full episode below:
[00:00:00] Josh: Welcome to Conquering Chaos, the show for manufacturing leaders. In each episode, we’re connecting you to the manufacturing leaders of today who are driving the innovations needed to future-proof the operations of tomorrow. If you feel like your time is spent fighting fires and trying to control the everyday chaos, this show is the show for you. My name is Josh Santo, I’ll be your host.
Welcome once again to Conquering Chaos, the show where manufacturing leaders and innovators share what’s top of mind for them and what they’re doing about it. Today’s episode is focused on continuous improvement. We have a lean and operational transformation expert with over 25 years of experience within automotive, aerospace, and industrial manufacturing here today to share his experiences and perspectives delivering improvements to all five elements of any business, safety, quality, delivery, cost, and people.
The impact of which has led to an estimated £25 million of savings or over $35 million over the course of his career. Please welcome our next guest, the owner and founder of Focus On The Process, Jonathan Griffiths. Jonathan, thank you so much for being here today.
[00:01:20] Jonathan Griffiths: Thanks, Josh. Many thanks for inviting me along to share my viewpoints and experience with everyone.
[00:01:27] Josh: Happy to have you. Just for some background for the audience. When I first met Jonathan, what struck me about him was the strong perspective that he had on continuous improvement. He straight up told me that most people, or a lot of people, I should say, I don’t want to put words in his mouth, are doing continuous improvement wrong and that’s what we want to unpack here. Before we do that, we always like to get to know our guest. Jonathan, I’d love to hear a little bit about you. What’s your day-to-day look like?
[00:01:56] Jonathan: I’m going to answer that in two ways because I’ve just recently launched my own business, Focus On The Process. Just before I go into what it’s like now as a business owner, I’m going to take a step back and go through my day-to-day when I was in a position as operational leader for a factory. Pretty much, it was very structured, so coming in the morning, look at the performance from last night, get on the shop floor, do my rounds, go to the sales and visit the shifts, go and see the people. So critical.
Then that early morning, get the whole of the team together and we’d have our first stand-up meeting where we would go through the performance from yesterday and what we’re looking at in the next 24 hours. We’re looking at, and you hinted there in the intro, Josh, we’re looking at safety first. What was my quality? What was my delivery performance yesterday? What’s it going to look like for today? Where have we got a problem? What was my cost and what’s my people?
Every person on the operational team would report out on that and they all had accountability for it. They took the onus of talking about it, what’s their actions going forward, and then you create that momentum, and that moves that business forward. Pretty much the day-to-day all focused around whatever came out of that startup meeting. That led the rest of the day and it drove that business to transform.
Really, for me, those are simple, lean principles that we just applied from an operational point of view. They helped us. Moving forward now as I go into my new journey as a business owner, I’m pretty much taking a similar route in terms of having that structure and that daily contact with people, but slightly different. A lot of my time now is being spent on meets and greets, calls with potential clients or even people that aren’t clients who you think have nothing to do with manufacturing but they are interested.
They are the people that are what I really want to try and get engaged with because they will know someone and they will know people in industry. The more we talk about continuous improvement and get that topic out there, it’s going to make the change a lot easy going forward.
[00:04:46] Josh: Absolutely. Now, what I love about what you said was the fact that it was repeatable. You knew what you were going to do, to a degree. You had to take into account that every day is different and so you had that time to really dedicate what happened, what worked, what didn’t work, what do we need to do in response to either make sure that whatever failed doesn’t fail again, et cetera.
I think you’re absolutely right when you’re talking about meeting people who are not necessarily in manufacturing, but could have some benefit when talking about the idea of continuous improvement. Prior to me getting exposed to manufacturing, I was very much someone who’s very focused on self-improvement. That involves really looking at what you did well, what you didn’t do well, how you can improve, what you need to do then.
I say that to really highlight how important the idea of continuous improvement is just in everyday life. As a person, operating a household, you mentioned you started your own business. Clearly, continuous improvement is critical for businesses, and we know in manufacturing continuous improvement is critical. It’s not a new topic, but it is paramount to staying competitive. Always be improving.
While there are many different methodologies and tools that inform each manufacturer’s approach to how they sustain their continuous improvement programs, there’s tools like Lean, Six Sigma, SMED, PDCA and more. I think it’s important for us to level set on the topic of continuous improvement. From your perspective, Jonathan, what is the scope of continuous improvement?
[00:06:36] Jonathan: I think the points that you raised there, Josh, are really interesting because there’s a lot of tools, principles out there that all come under this one big banner of continuous improvement, but when you really boil it down, continuous improvement is about how do I be better tomorrow? If you really just want to put a one-liner against it, how do I perform or be better tomorrow?
I think it’s interesting, from a personal point of view, we all go through a continuous improvement cycle in our life. Through education, there’s continuous improvement. We take an exam, we didn’t get the mark that we wanted, what do we do? We revise a little bit harder. Why? Because we want to be better tomorrow. Really, continuous improvement is that way of how do I or we and the mass be better?
Now better, you define yourself. What do you want to be better at? From a business point of view, every business wants to be better at making money, great, but there’s different ways of going about it. Under the big banner of continuous improvement, that’s what we’re trying to do. It’s quite simple. It really is, and I think that’s why as we get more into the headline of where we’re going with continuous improvement, we get sidetracked very easily and we’re losing sight of it.
[00:08:19] Josh: I think you raised an interesting point there, which was, I like how you put it, it’s really, how do I be better tomorrow? The critical point that you called out is better is defined by you. We all have assumptions about where, in general, people should be better, but it sounds like it’s up to the teams to really understand what is our goal? Are we in line with that goal? Is the way that we’re running leading us towards that goal? If so, great, how do we make sure to continue that effort? If not, what do we need to do to fix it?
Now, we brought up these different, Lean, Six Sigma, these different approaches, is there a right methodology when thinking about continuous improvement?
[00:09:19] Jonathan: I don’t think there is other than you take the principles and the methods that you’re confident that you can use to deliver the result that you want. I’ve seen so many times where businesses will take on a technique that they don’t really understand and push that so far into the business that they’re still not delivering results. What I mean by that is I’ve worked in organizations where there’s been Six Sigma, Black Belt, Master Black Belt teams set up, but we still have a quality forum on the shop floor, but have got a team of experts that are looking at it. Their way of working is different to the process engineers that are living it day in, day out. No one is right or wrong in that scenario, but we’re not all on the same page and we’re all not heading towards the same goal.
[00:10:24] Josh: What you described it sounds like there’s a gap there, at least a gap in between the teams. I want to take it back to what you said because I think that this represents what you were highlighting, is that organizations will take a technique and they’ll run with it but they don’t really understand the technique. Can you dig into that a little bit where your experiences of this not understanding and how that starts to manifest?
[00:10:54] Jonathan: I think it manifests because we get sold on the concept that it’s the new thing. There’s no silver bullet for fixing a business, but I think senior executives, business leaders get sold sometimes this concept that this will fix all your problems and in truth, it’s not. They enable you to fix your problem. They have a place, but they’re just one of many, They’re just tools in a mass toolbox that you’ve got under this big banner of continuous improvement. If they’re not all aligned to the needs of the business and measured that way, they won’t, from my experience, give you the results or deliver what you expect.
I think there’s another element to add on to that. When we talk about the principles, there are still industries today that all pushing more of just doing the principles, but don’t really understand why they’re doing it. I’m going to give you an example. A few years ago I was working for one firm for one organization. We had a way of measuring our deployments of Lean manufacturing, but it became very prescriptive which overnight we suddenly realized we were going the wrong way and we had to change it because what the concern is, if it becomes you’re doing everything to the letter of the book, people will just do that.
You want people on the continuous improvement to innovate, to feel that there’s a degree of freedom, that they can be part of the solution rather than, “Well, I can’t do this because I’m not allowed to.” Sometimes organizations become too heavy on trying to make the principle deployed correctly, rather than allowing the principle just to roam free and see what it’s going to get. Learning from our failure is a big thing of continuous improvement. It’s okay to fail because failing means that you did something rather than, “Well, I’m waiting for perfection.” Perfection will never come. Never come.
[00:13:41] Josh: There’s two or three things that I took away from what you just said that I really like. One, we’re getting into this idea of what manufacturers can get wrong about continuous improvement and what you’ve seen manufacturers get wrong about continuous improvement. To sum up just some of the categories I heard is surrounding the adoption of continuous improvement. You run with, this is the tool or this is the methodology we’re going to use. It sounds like there can sometimes be some gaps in how widespread across the organization that really is. You need everyone aligned, not just the continuous improvement group aligned on it.
It has to be a discipline practiced by everyone, which is a little bit what you got there when you described you don’t want to be over prescriptive because then people just do what they’re told. There’s an element of that that should be expected and can’t be avoided, you need to provide, here are the steps that you need to do to be successful, but I think the point that you’re raising is always being critical or always asking, “Is there a better way to do X, Y, or Z?”
That comes into that thought process type thing, which is pretty difficult to scale. You can’t just send out a procedure and say, “This is how we think now as a company.” There’s a lot that has to do with adopting on a personal level so that each individual has that idea and mentality. The other part that you started to bring up was that idea of also over-complicating it. It’s still pretty simple, it’s how do we get better and what are the tools available to us to get better?
Some of those are frameworks like the different– You said it yourself, these are tools in the toolbox, maybe I need to really focus on SMED right now and we’re going to use that so that we can decrease the amount of time it takes for us to perform our change over so that we’re able to produce more, because our goal is hit these numbers that we’re not hitting, or maybe you are hitting your numbers and you’re still not supplying enough to the market, so now you need to find any way that you can to produce more.
In this example, the way we get better is by busting out this tool known as SMED. I love coming back to that idea of you got to get the people thinking the same way to imbibe this as a discipline. How do you do that? That’s a tough thing.
[00:16:27] Jonathan: It’s tough. I don’t think there’s, like you say, there’s no one single answer. People are key to the success. I think, from my own experience, you’ve got to be very engaging with the people, you’ve got to bring them along. I’ve had experience of where there’s people that just don’t want to talk about the subject, but you need to understand why, why don’t they want to talk about it?
Then you’ve got the other extreme where you’ve got people that love to talk about the subject and embrace it fully. You can go from one extreme to the other, and you’ve really got to change– When you’re under this continuous improvement deployments, you’ve got to make it part of your business, It will fail if it’s a bolt on. If people see as part of the day- to-day, or they feel that it’s going to be part of the day-to-day, then the people side will come along with it because they know that it’s there, but if they start to get that sense that, well, this is the next initiative, or this is the next corporate blurred, okay, well, let’s see what happens in 12 months.
It will fail because people are not stupid and you have to also put it across in language that everyone can understand. A couple of examples on that from an operational leaders point of view, when you’re talking to people on the shop floor, your operators, you can’t speak to them with the KPIs, not the KPIs that you’re reporting to your senior leaders. You have to break it down to the language that they understand and draw them in and say, “This is how we measure this process and this is why it’s important.”
You adapt, and I think that’s the beauty of continuous improvement done correctly. You make it adaptable as you go through this journey. Going back to the previous point, don’t make it too prescriptive. It will flow. Yes, you know what, there are some tools that you want to use, but make them adaptable. There’s a mustard of information out there today on continuous improvement, all the techniques, lots of different viewpoints, so take on board all those different viewpoints, but also find what works for the organization.
I think it leads into that area where if you don’t take that approach or think about in a different way, you then go down this road of it becomes very complex, and then you definitely lose people.
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Now, back to the show. When you talk about it has to be adaptable what I hear is you have to be willing to improve it. This goes back to your original point of like, “It’s okay to. Fail means you did something, and it’s from there, that starting point that you can improve it.” When you’re talking about making continuous improvement adaptable, you’re talking about continuously improving your efforts to continuous improvement, how the same principles can apply.
That last piece on over-complicating it, because when you’re trying to improve something, you may run in the wrong direction and may not realize it, or may need some help realizing that. One thing that I’ve found over the years, especially working with different manufacturers and working with them to understand what their day-to-day looks like, we see that these problems and inefficiencies get normalized over time.
“This is the way that we do things,” but when it comes back to that, “Well, why do you do it that way?” That’s where maybe some of the answers become a little less clear, especially depending on how long it’s been that way and the tenure of the person that you’re speaking with.
That’s one of the reasons we wanted to start this podcast, was to examine these issues that would be considered everyday chaos, meaning it’s not necessarily the ideal way of doing the task, so who are those people that we can introduce the world that have a view of what needs to be done better and how are they doing it better? Back to your point, better being really subjective in that case, but when we talk about the need to simplify continuous improvement, how can you identify or determine that your efforts for implementing continuous improvement have gone a little off the rails and have become overly complicated?
[00:23:26] Jonathan: I think when you look at it, when you start to lose people, when you start to not see the results or the effectiveness of what you’re doing, it’s taking longer than what you’d expect. I think those are things, again, that you have to be very self-aware of that. It’s an interesting point because you have to apply continuous improvement to continuous improvement. You’ve got to be doing it within its own topic and not promote it or apply as it’s continuous improvement, there’s the book, we will follow.
I have lots of stories of organizations that I worked for where former operations directors told me when I was a very young engineer that I had to follow a certain book and guess what, I didn’t follow that book because it’s a bet that you do it because you need the result. That books good for that business, we’re a different business. If we want to be that business, then my answer is take down the sign and put their name above the door.
[00:24:54] Josh: I love that, and that goes back to your point of if somebody hands you a book and says, “This is the way we do continuous improvement,” it sounds like there’s already a flaw in that. Unless the book is purely philosophical with some examples where it says, here are the ideas to strive for, but let’s clarify, you’re going to have to figure out how to apply these principles. Providing a book that says specifically, this is how you do continuous improvement here and this is what it looks like, it takes away that continuous nature of it. Now you’ve just made it like a stagnant approach at that point.
[00:25:33] Jonathan: You have. If it was that easy where it was just following a book, don’t you think every business would have just brought the same book, but they haven’t. Everyone’s brought out different versions of the book, their own interpretation, what has worked, what hasn’t. I think continuous improvement really relies on a lot of soul searching and more of the, let’s say, you’re looking at behaviors of people and the emotional intelligence within all of us and having that ability, as we’ve just said, to make it adapt to suit what you’re doing today.
You may well be in principle working in that same framework, but the organization will just tweak it a little bit to suit what’s going on in their world. We all measure our businesses, our organizations in different ways. Therefore, continuous improvement has to adapt to the way that you measure your business because, again, there isn’t one rule book for how to measure a business. There’s guidelines, there’s ways, there’s best practice and we follow that up, but organizations are coming up with their own way of measuring their success every day.
I think we see that in this continuous improvement cycle, because different topics start to impact the business. Customer is very important, but let’s look at the last 12 months, the wellbeing of people is even more important. That then becomes a measure for business. Why? Because that’s important. Yes, the customer is important, but if you don’t look after your people, you will have nothing at some point to enable you to satisfy that customer.
[00:28:04] Josh: Talk about a relevant topic today, that idea of people, because the industry is struggling to retain people and to recruit people, especially from the younger generation. This conversation comes up so consistently podcasts that I’ve done, webinars that I’ve done. It is top of mind for everyone. Thinking about what you’re saying it’s prioritizing people, but also considering how continuous improvement isn’t just related to how you produce the product, it’s what do we have to do to make sure that our people feel like this is a place worth staying and working at?
What do we have to do to make sure that other people know that this is a place that you should want to work because of these benefits, this rewarding approach to it, this necessity and importance of the role? Continuous improvement is not siloed to those four walls there, it is everything at that point.
[00:29:10] Jonathan: It’s not, and I think that’s one of the issues that I see why continuous improvement can fail or doesn’t give you what you desire because you put it into a silo. You put all your continuous improvement efforts on the shop floor. That’s a priority, I agree, because at the end of the day, that’s where the value-add and the non-value-add is. Absolutely.
However, let’s take a step back and look at it from a full operational perspective. When I say full operational, I mean from the minute someone walks onto your site or into your business and out the door, what’s that experience? That’s how we have to approach this. We have to make continuous improvement part of the complete operational structure. It sits hand-in-hand with health and safety, and it sits on the other hand with quality that not one topic is more important but it sits there.
I’ve been fortunate enough that an organization I worked for they had a very strong viewpoint that their continuous improvement was about the business, and when they said the business, they meant every aspect of that business. If you were sat in accounts, you were being exposed and you were being brought into the continuous improvement skills. If you sat in a warehouse, it was being applied across every function. No one got a get out.
They was successful, and that’s the bit that we’ve got to try and overcome with time. Yes, production is important, but imagine being in a business where you’ve delivered everything on time to your customer and you’re waiting for the customers time and you haven’t got the cash in the bank yet. Why? Oh, because your accounting processes are inefficient, but brilliant, hats off that you’ve delivered on time to your customer, great, but you got no money coming in.
[00:32:16] Josh: I think it’s such a critical point. It’s the entire organization. Don’t just silo, your words, silo, continuous improvement. It has to be the spirit behind how you operate the business as a whole.
[00:32:33] Jonathan: Absolutely, and I think where organizations fall into trap is they create a continuous improvement organization, which is critical. You need that skill set to start the journey, you need that, and they’re critical to the business because their role is to educate and support the mass within your business, but too often they are used as the center of expertise, and therefore, they will be the only people that do anything on that subject, and they get drawn into so many things that other functions should be doing.
They get seen as the firefighter in a business when actually if you’ve got a quality problem, surely your quality department and the owner of the process where the problem is wrong should be working on that problem, not a team of CI experts coming in and taking over because, again, how will anybody learn?
[00:33:59] Josh: That sounds like a bottleneck at that point. You don’t want people to be a bottleneck for this application.
[00:34:08] Jonathan: Well, you don’t, and let’s take it outside of anything to do with manufacturing. Let’s just take it as– One of my examples was you failed an exam, you revise a little bit harder, the next time you take the exam you get better. Now, what happens if you subcontract that problem out? Yes, it happens. There are students that get other people to take their exams for them. It’s not unheard of, but it’s the same principle.
What we’re doing is we’re passing it to someone else who’s the expert, who’s the only going to solve my problem for me, but I’m not going to learn how they solved it, so the next time it happens, guess what I’m going to do? I’ll call them again. It’s so common within industry that we do that, and it’s not the wrong thing to have that group of experts in any field, but they have to be directed in the right way, and they have to be part of delivering solutions with the onus of the problem.
[00:35:20] Josh: It sounds like what you’re really bringing up is look, it’s okay to consider this another tool in your toolkit. The focus should also be around the idea of long-term sustainability. Is this a sustainable approach to making an improvement? Do we want to have to rely on external professionals to help us, or can we maybe respond in the now, meaning fix this specific problem with their help, but also pave the foundation to where we can run on our own until the next problem that we can’t solve on our own pops up?
[00:35:59] Jonathan: Correct. I’ll share a very short story on that. An organization I worked for, the operations director, I was a CI manager in the plant, he told me one day, he said, “Your ultimate aim is to make yourself redundant.” Now, when you say that really quick, it’s quite a shock overall. No, really, I want to work for the business for a long time, I love it, but listen to what he was saying and it’s exactly to what you’ve just said, Josh, you give people the skills, you empower the people, you give them the techniques, you coach them, the confidence, they become their own experts. They don’t need you, you go somewhere else. That’s what it’s about.
[00:37:03] Josh: You help them on their journey.
[00:37:05] Jonathan: Yes.
[00:37:07] Josh: I love that. I think there’s a lot of good takeaways from our conversation today. Overall, there’s a spirit of being humble, recognizing that there are failures, and that’s okay, and those serve as your foundation to what you need to improve. To improve, you have to consistently question whether or not your efforts to improve are actually leading to the desired outcome, and if they’re not, you have to make changes to your efforts to improve in order to do that.
I know that this is something that you work with. You started to focus on the process. People are going to need help. People need coaching, they need that guidance, and they need that experience. How can people learn more about your services and what you offer and reach out to you to find out if you can help them on their journey to improving how they do continuous improvement?
[00:38:04] Jonathan: The easiest way to get ahold of me is like everybody, just get ahold of me on LinkedIn. Search Jonathan Griffiths, you’ll get me. My website is fotpltd.co.uk, and if they want to email me, they can, which is firstname.lastname@example.org. It’s great what you just said, Josh. I really want to have those conversations with those organizations that they do think, “Well, yes we’re doing a great job, but we want to be– or we could we be better, or we’re struggling. We’ve launched continuous improvement, but I’m not seeing the result yet.”
Again, trust me, that happens in big organizations and it happens in the medium size. The big organizations probably don’t ask that question often enough because it’s not their pain point at the moment, but it will become a pain point and then it’s too late. Let’s just have those conversations about how to– Let’s make it really, really simple for people to adopt a continuous improvement mindset, which is what you’ve highlighted. It is a mindset, it’s behavior, nothing more than that.
[00:39:52] Josh: There’s such parallels with that and the approach to safety, because everyone’s on the same page that safety is everyone’s responsibility, that is behavior, that is something where you do have to constantly challenge, “Is what I’m doing safe? Are the operating circumstances safe?” Well, the same type of mindset that applies to continuous improvement, “Is what I’m doing going to lead to the output that we’re looking for ultimately?”
I love what you said about taking inventory of what it’s like current day and how we can partner together in order to make sure that that culture and that mindset is, is adopted. Jonathan, thank you so much for being here today.
[00:40:34] Jonathan: Josh, I’ve loved it. Thanks very much. For everyone listening, know it’s a journey. Let’s go on it together. Thank you.
[00:40:45] Josh: That’s the show. Thank you so, so much for joining us today. Conquering Chaos is brought to you by Parsable. If you’re a fan of these conversations, subscribe to the show and leave us a rating on Apple Podcasts, just tap the number of stars you think this show deserves. As always, feel free to share what’s top of mind for you and who you think we should talk to next. Until then, talk soon. Take care, stay safe and bye-bye.Listen to find out how if you've been continuous improvement wrong.