As a manufacturing and injection molding practice, “continuous improvement” isn’t a difficult theory to sell — after all, who wouldn’t want to be constantly getting better? In practice, however, the concept of continuous improvement often proves to be more of a hurdle, due to a number of factors. Some of the most common roadblocks to an effective implementation of continuous improvement (also sometimes called “continual improvement”) include:
- Misunderstanding or lack of knowledge regarding the principles of continuous improvement
- Reluctance to implement a new “process” or production element in the form of continuous improvement
- Lack of time or resource capacity to properly practice continuous improvement
And many more. Any number of factors or “justifications” can stand in the way of introducing continuous improvement into an injection molding process. The information that follows is intended to put as many of these factors as possible to rest and help you or your manufacturing partner understand and begin to implement continuous improvement, at a level that is manageable and effective for you.
What is continuous improvement?
At a very, very high level, continuous improvement is a method of identifying and acting on areas of inefficiency (or error) in a manufacturing process, meant to be gauged in every process cycle at every potential area where feedback can be gathered. Bear in mind that this definition is, by necessity, a huge oversimplification of the concept of continuous improvement, which is an area where years can be spent learning and perfecting the theory alone.
It’s important to note that a key tenet of continuous improvement is gathering feedback at the process level. This means that some of the most important practitioners of continuous improvement are those who are making the process happen — the facility workers on the floor who are operating and programming machinery, inspecting parts, and so on — not necessarily engineers working at a higher level on theoretical process and efficiency improvement. This is not to say that high-level R&D doesn’t have a place in a facility that practices continuous improvement, but that these two processes can work in conjunction to create more efficient production.
You may hear it said that continuous improvement can produce either incremental efficiencies or huge, “breakthrough” efficiencies, but it will almost always be the case that even a “breakthrough” efficiency from the continuous improvement school of thought arrives on the shoulders of many smaller discoveries.
Continuous improvement is a part of (and in some cases, a key underpinning to) many management, production and process techniques, including Six Sigma, lean manufacturing and Kanban, to name just a few. It is certainly possible to implement continuous improvement without taking the full dive into a brand-new production management school of thought — and in many cases, continuous improvement can be a first step toward incorporating more efficiencies from other areas of these management systems into your processes. The important point to remember is that you can start at the level that your resources allow, and scale up from there — you’re almost always guaranteed to see efficiencies that will justify the effort.
How can you (or your manufacturing partner) implement continuous improvement?
The ingenuity of continuous improvement lies in the fact that, no matter what the scale of your operation, it can yield big efficiencies from relatively minor process modifications. The points listed below represent some of the easiest process changes that can be introduced to lay the groundwork for larger-scale continuous improvement and, down the line, other efficiencies.
Introduce employee ownership over feedback and processes: In a continuous improvement process, all employees should feel empowered to raise questions about process efficiencies and improvements — in many cases, the nature of a production process means that only one employee (the one closest to the particular process) may be aware of an area where improvements can be made. Employee education and retraining can help ensure that processes are viewed as dynamic and subject to input and feedback, rather than static and unchanging.
Standardize methods of feedback: Depending on your resources and the scale of your operation, it can be helpful to create a standardized way for employees to submit feedback, for instance, through a dedicated email address or as part of regularly scheduled weekly or monthly feedback meetings. Be sure to consider the role of anonymity in feedback, since employees may be reluctant to suggest improvements that might be seen as “undermining” a superior.
Consider bandwidth/capacity for continuous improvement: Think of continuous improvement as an investment in your efficiency and bottom line. If your facility is running at (or close to) 100 percent capacity, the employees who are likely to make the biggest contribution to continuous improvement are unlikely to actually take the time to do so. Incorporating continuous improvement into your process and resource assessment is one way to create more time for employees to provide the feedback that is the most important part of continuous improvement.
Be sure to implement feedback and suggestions: Step 1 of continuous improvement is gathering feedback from those who best understand the practicalities of a process. Step 2 is implementing that feedback (again, this is a major simplification designed for an overview). Implementing feedback doesn’t necessarily mean completely changing a process right away — it could mean introducing a new research project or testing a new production method based on suggestions. If feedback isn’t acted on, it’s likely that you’ll soon stop receiving it — meaning the potential for efficiency improvements is gone (or must be reintroduced by education, training, etc.)
There’s much, much more to continuous improvement (and Six Sigma, lean manufacturing, and so on) than this introduction. But if you like what you’ve read here, be sure to continue your exploration of these principles and techniques — whether for your facility, or as a basis for questions to ask the manufacturers with which you choose to work.