Continuous Improvement Implementation– Actions Leaders Must Take to Change the Plant Culture.


Recently, I conducted a Google search to see what information I could find regarding the implementation of continuous improvement.  My query yielded 3.75 million hits on this topic.  Most of the websites and blogs I investigated debated if the approach should be top down (meaning lead and driven my leadership) or bottom up (meaning lead and driven by the workers on the factory floor).  In my experience the correct answer is BOTH!  However, one approach should come before the other.  If the factory is to achieve the goal of driving sustainable results while simultaneously driving a culture change, the leadership needs to do just that….LEAD!

However, one must ask “what is really meant by the top down approach anyway?”  Does it mean that the plant manager and the leadership team attend a bunch of Lean training and do some 5S or a pilot project to gain experience before leading the plant?  Well, yes!  But there is a little more that needs to be completed in order to drive the culture change needed to become a continuous improvement factory.  Here is my two cents on what else needs to happen when implementing the “top down approach.”

Obtain Strategic Alignment with Supply Chain Senior Leadership

Every year the factory manager and his team should engage in a process with the senior supply chain leadership to set the strategic direction for the factory and decide key goals and metrics.  The very first thing in ensuring that the Continuous improvement (CI) remains in the forefront of how business is done is to have a commitment to continuous improvement explicitly stated in the verbiage of the strategic goals that are set.  In addition, Continuous improvement should also be noted in the mission of the factory.  Since the mission is used to provide a compass to what is to be achieved and how, employees will feel the commitment from the leadership that Continuous Improvement is extremely important and a true part of the culture.

Leverage the Power to Senior Supply Chain Leadership’s Visits

Okay, let’s have a moment of honesty.  What happens at your plant when the factory manager and his/her team learn that the Supply Chain Director or VP is coming for a visit? ….Panic, chaos and stress or excitement and calmness…. Whatever your response to this question was, you can leverage the visit to drive the culture change top down.  Imagine what would happen if the results of the individual plant TPM/LEAN pillars and the overall continuous improvement audit scores were scheduled to be reviewed by plant and senior leadership together.   What if senior leadership held the plant leadership to an expectation of reviewing all continuous improvement projects and results related to driving the strategic goals of the plant?  How far would that go in changing the plant culture to one of full support of being not just a plant that does continuous improvement but a continuous improvement plant?  What would happen if senior leadership took the time to reward individuals for delivering goals via CI and success was truly celebrated?  I could go on and on, but I’m sure you get the picture.

Tie Continuous Improvement Goals to the Performance Ratings of the Plant Leadership Team

At the end of the day, every person in the plant needs to have clarity as to, “what’s in it for me?”  Fortunately, most companies have a system already established to help provide the answer to that specific question.  We will call it the individual work plan (IWP for short).  In most companies the IWP is created for each member of the plant’s supervisory and management team with the direction of the plant leadership.  This document contains the metrics for the individual employee’s success and is reviewed at least twice a year.  Though most factories do a good job of linking the metrics for the factory’s strategic goals, the metrics for CI related performance are often left out.  Imagine, what would happen if the goals for the each of the pillars and CI audit were reflected in the IWP’s of the managers that respectively have ownership for those pillars?  What if the delivery of the plant’s overall CI audit score and the saving target from CI projects was explicitly stated and reviewed on the IWP of the factory manager?  What would that do towards changing the culture and empowering the top down implementation approach?

Support the Continuous Improvement Department: Staffing, Budget, and Tools

How many of you CI managers feel operate as an army of one or maybe two, if you’re lucky?  Do you often have to negotiate with either the quality, operations, or maintenance manager to get funding for everything from people to pencils?  Are you  still using paper based system to do simple yet important tasks like defect tagging or basic machine root cause analysis?   What would happen if the CI department had staffing based on the support needed to training, coach, and audit the strategic areas targeted for continuous improvement?  What would happen if the CI department had its own budget to support training and the purchasing of robust CI tools? How much more successful would the CI department be in supporting the plant to reach its goals?


My experience as a CI practitioner has lead me to the conclusion that the success of CI in a factory has more to do with the people than anything else.  The people must be part of a culture that seeks to eliminate losses and drive efficiency.  However, most people have a natural resistance to change.  This is why it’s absolutely critical for the leadership of the factory to do more than just agree that CI is the right thing to do.  They must integrate CI into the mission, measures, goals, and review structure of the plant.  Finally, factory leadership must also provide support to the CI department in the form of money, labor, training, and tools to ensure the success of the department and the factory itself.

About the Author



Patrick T Anderson  is a leader and practitioner of Continuous Improvement in manufacturing with over 18 years of extensive experience.  During this time, he has trained, coached, and audited hundreds of people on Lean Methodology and led teams to deliver millions in hard savings to the companies he has served.  Patrick is the founder of OpExApps, INC. in which he has taken his passion for programming technology to develop systems to make the application of continuous improvement simpler and more efficient.  Patrick is an alumnus of Florida A&M University and Xavier University, from which he obtained his B.S. Chemical Engineering and MBA degrees respectively.  

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