5 Levels of Improvement, from Individual to Supply Chain

Organisations that aspire to improve their processes need to be able to organise how they are going to go about the improvement so they can be assured the improvement will be what they want and intended. Typically they may choose to follow a Kaizan or Lean process which involves 5 levels at which the organisation can approach the improvement process.

Level 1 – The Individual

The individual should be the recognised expert in the process they do. This is not something to be left to chance, the organisation should have ensured she/he/they understands the actual process, understands why the process is necessary and how it fits into the broader picture. Which is to say, the individual must be competent in the work and be able to recognise where improvements can be made. In this way both improvement and sustainability of the improvement begin with the individual.

At the individual’s workstation there will oftentimes be opportunities for waste reduction or even elimination; work piece orientation, inventory, and location of equipment… So some workplace improvements can arise as a result of workstation-level investigation and review of records kept. For example, Toyota South Africa use the Zulu word ‘Eyako’ meaning ‘my own’ as the name of their individual improvement program. The program works by the Team Leader encouraging and initiating an improvement, acting as a facilitator for change and offering encouragement to the individual. Once the individual has made the improvement the Team Leader will then write and post a ‘Thank You’ note and bring the improvement to the attention of others. So the Team Leader is the owner of the improvement but relies on the expertise of the individual operator for execution.

Its worth noting that in most places of work wishing to follow an improvement process its very much worthwhile employing the help of a Lean or Six Sigma specialist(s). In larger organisations this may be a separate team but could equally be a consultant. But whatever the case the person or role responsible for the improvement is always the team leader or line manager – they are the owner of the process afterall.

Level 2 – The Work Team

Groups or work teams working in a ‘cell’ style of work can undertake improvement of their work area/cell normally quite comfortably. Typically they will use 5-S, work-flows, cell layouts or foot-printing. Some initiatives may come as a result of mapping activities. These can often be dealt with through team meetings concerning awareness or short 1 – 2 day efforts for improvement. It is sometimes the case that the improvement will be helped along by an expert or consultant, but like individuals the team leader/line manager is responsible for the process changes.

Interdependent and collaborative teams or cells tend to understand well the process and environment they work in and so can normally recognise the need to improve almost instinctively. However, it is often the case that organisations more widely will tend to see and respond to a need for improvement as a need to reorganise. The temptation to reorganise often presents the illusion that progress is being made whilst actually producing confusion, inefficiency and has a demoralising effect.

The top level, top down approach resulting in a reorganisation really is counter-productive. It’s the ‘we know better than you’ implication that will drive out team buy-in and may eventually make matters worse still.

Level 3 – Kaizen Blitz or Point Kaizen

This is an event aimed at a specific improvement on a specific area and will take 3 – 5 full days and does need outsiders to help. Unlike improvement driven through individuals or teams which tend to be aimed at an acute issue, the following approaches are nearly always aimed at chronic issues.

These events address more complex improvement needs beyond the comfortable level that an individual or group can deal with. Examples might be, whole layout changes, a change to scheduling systems and integration of information and manufacturing systems. For many organisations this is seen as the primary engine for improvement. Unlike Level 2 Teams the Kaizen Blitz team will be specifically brought together to make the specific improvement and then disbanded afterwards. At this level of improvement activity the organisation needs the assistance of a consultant or an internal specialist and possibly other internal specialists too.

The effect is to make wide ranging and long-term changes in the way things are done. Necessarily resulting in significant cost reductions both financially and time and also including improvements in quality of product and service characteristics.

Level 4 – Flow Kaizen Groups

Flow Kaizen Groups work across a whole value stream for normally longer periods of say 1 – 3 months. Their purpose is to set out what the future state looks like and action plan the process.

Unlike Kaizen Blitz groups this group will not work full time on the project, although some members of the group may work uninterrupted for days at a time. They will be lead by a Project Manager and assisted by a Lean Promotion Officer and Consultants. The group typically will be multi-disciplinary and work through a complete process or value stream involving all functions.

Flow Kaizen Groups address process issues, systems issues and organisational issues.

Level 5 – Supply Chain Kaizen Groups

This group works similar to Flow Kaizen Groups but will work through the full supply chain. Again a Project Manager will be appointed (normally from the OEM manufacturing company) and there is a much greater role to play for Consultants.

The Supply Chain Kaizen Group is trying to ‘see the whole’ and rely heavily on value stream mapping as the central tool for driving improvement.

References and Suggested Further Reading:

Collaborative Advantage; 2000 – Jeffrey Dyer – OUP

Creating World Class Suppliers: 1994 – Peter Hines – Pitman

Philip Dawson MBA | Strategy Consultant | Trainer | Systems Thinker | Growth & Innovation Evangelist

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