I was recently contacted by one of my readers who asked me the question, "What is the most profound thing you have learned during your career that changed the way you approach continuous improvement?" While this may seem like a simple question to answer, for me it just isn't simple at all. Why? Because for me, improvement is like a jigsaw puzzle where all of the puzzle pieces are arranged in sequence to form a completed "picture." These jigsaw pieces are there, right in front of you, but sometimes, depending upon how elaborate and complicated the finished picture is, it's difficult to put them together to form the finished product. My answer to this question was that it wasn't necessarily one thing, but rather a series of "learnings," that changed my view of how improvement should be approached and implemented.
Like many other people, along the way, I learned improvement in puzzle pieces. When I first started on my improvement journey, I was an avid fan of statistics and statistical techniques. I remember learning about and implementing Statistical Process Control (SPC), early on in my career and thought it was the best thing since sliced bread. I mean, here was a tool that I could use to stabilize processes and make them predictable. I remember going overboard with SPC and using it on virtually every kind of process problem I encountered. Back then, I was working for Xerox Corporation in a manufacturing plant in Oklahoma and before then, we hadn't been using SPC. This experience was a very profound one for me.
From Xerox, I moved on to Michelin Tire Corporation as a quality manager responsible for improving the tire-building process. Not long after joining Michelin, I was introduced to Designed Experiments and, like my experience with SPC, I decided that DOE's were somewhat of a "missing link" in my improvement efforts. I remember using DOE's in conjunction with SPC with amazing results. Learning about DOE's was also a very profound experience for me. It too was a sort of missing link in my improvement journey. In addition to DOE's, I also learned about hypothesis testing and how these tools could be used effectively to test relationships and correlations and once again, it was a profound experience for me.
My next profound "learning" occurred at a fiber glass company where I learned about Lean and waste reduction. I was like a kid in a candy store because I saw waste everywhere! I attacked waste with a vengeance, removing it in every possible place within my processes. I was amazed that I hadn't learned about this before because it was such a simple concept. But although waste existed everywhere and I was a zealot about removing it, I learned that not all waste was the same. I expected to see significant bottom line improvement immediately, but it just didn't come like I thought it should have. I actually began forming a negative opinion of waste reduction because many times it resulted in people losing their jobs because of a performance metric called "efficiency." So my profound learning, in this case, was the impact of incorrectly using performance metrics to drive cost reduction. At the time, I remember thinking to myself, if profitability is based upon how much cost can be removed from a process or system, then there has to be a lower limit. But in reality, I didn't see an answer to my dilemma.
Eventually I ended up being hired to become the General Manager of a manufacturing plant with roughly 260-270 employees. The sad truth was, this plant was not functioning very well at all, to the point that the parent company was considering shutting it down. As I have written about before in earlier postings, not only did this plant not shut down, but rather it became the "model" for the corporation. Early on in my tenure here, I learned about something called the Theory of Constraints and this ended up being my most profound learning of all. I learned about TOC's 5 focusing steps and how improvements everywhere would not necessarily result in system-wide improvement. The concept of "localized improvements" made me realize why, during my Lean learnings, that I didn't see mush bottom line impact. I learned about identifying the focal point (the constraint) and applying my previous learnings to it because it was my leverage point for profitability. In addition, I learned about Throughput Accounting and why generating more revenue is the true pathways to improved profitability.
Like the jigsaw puzzled I talked about in my opening, all of the pieces came together for me one piece at a time. And while it took many years for me to complete my improvement jigsaw puzzle, the lessons I learning along the way were all very profound. But if I had to select the most profound "thing" as the reader asked me, I would have to say that learning about the Theory of Constraints was it. It was the glue that tied all of my earlier learnings together and allowed me the opportunity to complete my improvement jigsaw. But the funny thing is, even after all of these years, I continue learning which makes me believe that my journey has not yet ended.