How Continuous Improvement Principles Help Manufacturers Embrace Uncertainty

Your company will be more agile if you commit to being better at getting better

Ted Theyerl

July 22, 2020

‘Forward!” It’s the state motto of Wisconsin, where I work to help manufacturing companies improve their operations and processes. It’s one simple word that holds a lot of meaning and relevance. It’s what I want companies I work with to embrace, practice, and execute. Forward is a word that helps summarize an entire scope of improvement practices, and it’s a word that has become even more relevant in these times of uncertainty. This motto and mindset can help your company serve everyone—your owners, employees, and customers—even better in the future. Forward!

When the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic hit hard in mid-March 2020, the entire business and economic landscape shifted, almost instantly. Manufacturing companies had no option but to adapt rapidly to change or suffer the consequences—which could be immediate or long lasting.

How well did you do? If you adjusted quickly and smoothly, that’s a good sign you have solid improvement practices in place. If it was a struggle or worse, a threat to your business, that is a signal you need to get better at getting better—rapidly. How can you improve your ability to adapt rapidly?

Small and medium-sized manufacturers faced many technological and workforce challenges before the pandemic arrived. Now, some have fewer customers or none at all. Some are so busy they cannot keep up with orders. But everyone is sorting out how to adjust.

How do you evolve and adapt your manufacturing business strategies and operations at lightning speed in a rapidly changing and uncertain environment? You embrace and employ lean, kata, and kaizen (continuous improvement) principles to be agile and adapt almost continuously. You commit to being better at getting better. You strive to become the best possible version of your company. You adapt rapidly to serve your customers better and make processes easier and less frustrating for your employees.

Why it’s crucial to have a system for experimentation

Successful manufacturing companies understand that small improvements add up to meaningful impacts, and they empower their employees to do things differently even though they might fail. But they follow a systematic kaizen approach known as the PDCA methodology:
1. Plan
2. Do
3. Check
4. Act (“adjust” is another term often used with PDCA)

To help manufacturers become more agile, they learn to speed up the PDCA cycles to evolve continuously toward improved processes. Formal systems and documentation are recommended to start this process, and kata training and tools to manage the process and data should be included. The eventual goal is that the experimentation mindset should eventually become instinctive for everyone in the company.

The Improvement Kata helps develop fundamental skills of working like a scientist. The learner iterates or experiments his or her way toward a desired goal instead of deciding the way forward. This way of thinking and working helps people successfully deal with uncertainty and challenges.

The Coaching Kata is a repeating routine by which managers teach Improvement Kata to everyone in the company. The teacher or coach gives the learner procedural guidance, not solutions, helping the learner successfully overcome obstacles and develop confidence. Since many managers do not have experience in coaching others to think this way, the Coaching Kata helps managers develop these skills. With Toyota Kata, managers can develop their own coaching skills and their team members’ problem-solving skills simultaneously.

The experimentation mindset is not unlike fishing. If the fish aren’t biting, you can change the bait, move to a different spot, try deeper waters, or adjust many other variables. What is working best? Change quickly and adapt to the conditions presented. PDCA empowers employees and teams to talk about how to try things and to share the results.

The importance of the pursuit of breakthroughs

“Getting better” is one thing, but getting better at being better is another. I believe this is the next level beyond continuous improvement. Improve your continuous-improvement systems. High-performing manufacturers that can quickly adapt to changing conditions often share these three characteristics to serve their customers better and strengthen their operations:
• Constantly look for breakthroughs and new technology
• Focus on streamlining data management
• Practice and fully embrace kaizen—continuous improvement—at all levels of the organization

What amounts to a “breakthrough” varies throughout an organization’s hierarchy. In a simple context, it might be divided like this:
Upper management: Development or discovery of a new process or product of significant positive impact. Focus and time on this should be high, but the practice of continuous improvement in operational aspects is still important.
Middle managers: Breakthrough process improvement doesn’t have as much time or dedicated focus as daily improvement in key metrics across the operation. Even though managing operations is a key objective, managers still should encourage ideas and input on potential breakthrough ideas.
Frontline/supervisors/associates: More task-specific continuous improvement of an incremental nature, but companies need to have systems to encourage and evaluate potential breakthrough ideas.

Companies should dedicate resources to focus on breakthroughs, especially at the upper management level. How can you do what you do better? What is the next wave of technology that could revolutionize how you produce goods or serve your customer? The highest-performing clients I work with do not get comfortable with their current state. They constantly research technology solutions and processes. Make this a part of your culture.

A University of Wisconsin-Stout Manufacturing Outreach Center client based its business model on batches of 500-lb loads, just like every other domestic competitor in the industrial laundering sector. Upon hearing of the small-batch approach of a company in Europe, and attending a lean simulation training, they visited that site and challenged themselves to see how that approach could reduce waste. They then ran simulations for loads of 50 to 80 lbs and tested it on a small scale. By switching to a small-batch processing approach, they removed significant nonvalue-added steps from the process, increased throughput, and improved personal service to their customers, all while saving time and money. They are now working on their third-generation improvement of the small-batch model and continue to utilize and improve this approach.

How a culture of continuous improvement keeps you moving forward

Although continuous improvement principles are indeed a mindset, there are tangible signs of when they are evident:
• They are part of a daily or weekly check-in, kata coaching session, or meeting. They are always trying to do things better.
• There is a systematic approach to experimentation and testing, supported by training and encouraged in operations.
• There is visual communication of updated results and metrics for specific initiatives.

For larger initiatives, there literally might be a sign of progress. Some of our clients display big kata boards to track key projects and metrics for everyone to see.

There also will be indirect signs when a work culture is evolving as success creates curiosity. When an initiative in one department shows visible improvements, people in other departments will ask, “Who’s next?” and, “How can we do that?” Fast followers will help move the pack. Be sure to support it!

Be sure to understand and communicate your target condition—overall company goals, as well as immediate goals—where you want to go. Next, understand where you currently are, and the current processes in place. Then, what are the obstacles preventing you from achieving the target condition? Focus efforts and rapid PDCA cycles on removing those obstacles to move you toward the target condition. Do not let perfection stand in the way of becoming better. Forward!

Commitment to continuous improvement may take a leap of faith

Many small manufacturers know they have much to gain from undertaking a continuous-improvement process, but they struggle with how to carve out the time away from production and the urge to defend how they have done things for so many years. Yes, there is a leap of faith at some point when it’s time to commit to making improvements in a manufacturing organization, especially to the process of becoming better at making improvements quickly, efficiently, and effectively.

Ultimately, a successful continuous-improvement process results in each person in the organization continually asking, “How can I do my job better, and how can we serve our customers better?” Also, have training and systems that support culture, and continue to work on improving those. That culture and those systems will be beneficial in uncertain times and when agility is needed most.

A saying we have in Wisconsin is “Keep ’er movin’,” made famous by Wisconsin comedian Charlie Berens of the Manitowoc Minute. I suggest we “Keep on, keeping ’er movin’.” Keep getting better at being better! Prepare for the future, and continue to develop your systems, employees, and culture for rapid-change development. You will not only be better off now but also ready for when the next big change hits.

Forward, everyone!

About The Author

Ted Theyerl’s picture

Ted Theyerl


Ted Theyerl is a senior project manager who specializes in lean, continuous improvement, Toyota kata, and training within industry (TWI) for the University of Wisconsin-Stout Manufacturing Outreach Center, which is part of the MEP National Network. He is certified to train in all MEP National Network lean manufacturing programs.