Some Key Questions Printers Should Consider About Their Continuous Improvement Efforts
Occasionally I provide consulting services to printing companies focused on quality, productivity, and continual improvement. Often it involves an assessment of their improvement culture and Lean practices. Consequently, I spend time in the gemba in conversations with workers about their activities. I’ve found the best way to encourage conversations and elicit insight during these visits is to ask open-ended questions. I’d like to share some of the questions I’ve found most helpful and explain why I think you might find them helpful as well.
1. What should be happening? What is actually happening? What can you tell me about the difference?
OK, there are three questions here, but most everything underlying higher rates of improvement involves answers to these questions so I almost always start with them. “What should be happening?” is another form of the Toyota Kata’s “What is your target condition?” By asking this, it limits responses such as “we need to … ,” and “we’re trying to … ” When evaluating what actually is happening, it’s necessary to know the standard, otherwise we have nothing with which to compare.
“What is actually happening?” is asked to grasp the current condition in the same terms as the target. When the current and target conditions are expressed in differing measures and terms, the gap between the two is impossible to clearly comprehend.
“What can you tell me about the difference?” is asked to gauge how well the person understands the gap between what should be happening and what is actually happening. If the process has deteriorated, can the person explain what has changed or why the standard is not being achieved? Clearly, if one or both initial questions cannot be answered, the person will be unable to answer the third.
In my experience, answers to these three questions give fundamental insight into the improvement abilities and practices in place at the company. Process improvement requires that practitioners understand the difference between the desired condition and the actual condition so that they can take effective action.
2. What are two or three concrete examples of improvements you have made recently?
This question helps me learn if improvements are an integral part of their everyday work. I’m not looking for big things, just small, everyday types of improvements that can be made by everyone. If people working on the factory floor, for instance, cannot provide me with any small, simple examples, it tells me that the company does not have a culture of continual improvement.
At the end of the day, process improvement is about removing unnecessary hassle (waste, complexity, and annoyances), satisfying the needs of internal customers, and maximizing value. You don’t really need to know anything else. If you’re able to get all your co-workers to identify and deliver what their internal customers want, while they are continually minimizing the amount of unnecessary hassle for themselves, you are on track to creating flow.
3. What exactly is the problem you are trying to solve?
I ask this question when someone is involved in a kaizen (improvement) event to gain insight into the problem or unwanted condition being addressed. One of the most common situations is that problems have been defined in general terms and thus are open to differing interpretations. Without a clear understanding by all involved of the problem and the target (or new standard) condition to be achieved, improvement activities will focus on the tools (5S, standard work, visual workplace, etc.) and not the needed improvement in performance. Jumping to a tool or solution that is only partially related to the problem wastes dollars and time.
For example, I’ve seen many 5S initiatives conducted that resulted in cleaner, neater work areas, but did nothing to reduce cycle times, reduce costs, or improve quality, all of which were needed by the companies conducting them. Prior to the beginning of any kaizen event, I want everyone involved to have a detailed understanding of the problem, including measurement and facts of its severity as well as the new, desired standard condition. Clarify the problem, break it down, and set a target condition before changing anything.
4. What two or three strategic business objectives are your continuous improvement practices seeking to influence, and how do you ensure that your practices are aligned with your objectives?
This is a great question for anyone in the company, but especially for the leadership team. I ask it of managers because it’s common for printing companies to start a Lean/CI initiative without a clear understanding of the needs of the business and how CI can help meet those needs. It’s not surprising that it results in a scatter-shot approach to tool-based kaizen events with little sustained improvement in key performance areas. The intentions are noble, but the results are insufficient.
In my experience, printing companies that link their improvement efforts to their strategic business goals seem to outperform those who do not. This is often achieved through a method called hoshin planning where the company’s performance goals are cascaded through the organization with increasing detail for each area. Improvement activities are then focused on those areas and processes where the greatest opportunities for gains exist.
Of course, many more questions can be asked, all of which are intended to reveal something. After asking each of these questions I listen closely because the answers will lead to further learning for all involved. Remember, curiosity is the secret sauce of Lean.
2021 Continuous Improvement Conference
The 2021 Continuous Improvement Conference (Aug. 22-24 in Columbus, Ohio) is the only industry event focused on helping printing and converting companies achieve operational excellence and Lean leadership. Attendees directly link reduced costs, lowered waste, and increased profit margins to ideas gained from conference presentations and networking. To learn more about the event, visit ci.printing.org.
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John is owner and principal of Compton & Associates, a consulting company dedicated to improving the people, processes, and profits of its clients. He is professor emeritus of the Rochester Institute of Technology, where he taught quality systems and process improvement while serving as director of the Center for Quality and Productivity in the Graphic Arts. Most recently, he served as vice president of quality and training at Vertis Communications and prior to that, he served as vice president of quality and organizational development at Fort Dearborn Company. John has authored and co-authored several books dealing with quality and productivity in the printing and imaging industry. He is a Master Lean/Six Sigma Black Belt and a senior member of the American Society for Quality. John has served as a consultant to the Continuous Improvement Conference since 2010.