The Transparent Cube
This is the first article of a series in which Greg lays out his ideas on and approach to Continuous Improvement, based on nearly 18 years of experience in the field. Here, he takes us through how he views the wider structure of CI with a view to expand upon this in more depth in further articles.
One of the great difficulties faced by those who work in CI, myself included, is describing the nature of CI to people due to the interconnected nature of the tools and techniques used.
Over the years working in Continuous Improvement I have heard lots of different metaphors, similes and analogies used to describe the process as a whole, and its applications. I’ve even come up with a few myself! But only recently, during a conversation, did I chance upon one that I thought not only summed up the difficulties associated with teaching continuous improvement but managed to describe it accurately as well. That is the metaphor of the transparent cube.
What do I mean when I say this? “Continuous Improvement is like a Transparent Cube?” (Indeed, my conversation partner took some convincing as well.) The way that I view it is this: Each tool of CI is like one face of a transparent cube, with the process in the centre of the cube. Looking through each face will give a unique insight and viewpoint of the process taking place. But, and here is the thing, much like the apocryphal tale of the blind men and the elephant, each face of the cube reveals only one aspect of continuous improvement. They cannot, individually, describe the whole.
When teaching the skills and techniques of CI we often break the practice down into individual tools and techniques, concentrating on each in turn, in order to simplify the description and implementation. However, none of these techniques give an accurate picture of CI on their own. Even the higher level mapping tools need to be used in combination in order to get a fuller and balanced picture. The tools and techniques are interlinked and interrelated to one another, much like the edges and corners of a cube help to describe the form of the cube itself.
So if people try and apply individual CI techniques to situations they will run into difficulties. While they may see some short term improvement, any gains they make will be limited by the integrated nature of CI tools. It’s necessary to understand the whole in order to put the parts into practice.
An example of a tool that is often introduced on its own is Workplace Organisation or the 5Ss. In some implementations it is recommended to use only 5S for up to two years before any other techniques are introduced, regardless of the state of the business and the conditions that exist there. Whilst the implementation is actually broader than this and while there is value in doing so, this tool-first approach is, in my view, flawed.
When implementing any kind of CI tool, my goal is always to show the client the reason for the tool and how it will help with their situation. Without a clear and defined reason, any tool, no matter how effective, has the danger of being unsustainable because it is not fully understood or the reason for its use misinterpreted.
To illustrate let’s look at a different approach to the application of 5S as part of changeover reduction or SMED (Single Minute Exchange of Dies). My process would be to first work with the client to identify the issues, using data to quantify those issues and then go straight to that area of the plant to view the process directly.
For example, if Changeover between products is a major loss to the operation, then the use of Changeover Reduction would be the first port of call to improve the situation. If during the analysis of the Changeover activity the availability of the correct tools and materials is identified as an issue, it is then that I would introduce 5S, because we now have a reason for using it. Having the correct tools and materials to hand saves time and due to the analysis, time saved by the use of 5S is quantifiable and hence any expenditure needed to achieve the improvements can be justified as well.
Using this reason-first approach we can implement tools more sustainably and ensure they remain effective over the long-term. 5S, in this situation, is sustainable because it is relevant to the client’s situation and is not just seen as a housekeeping exercise. A tools-first approach that simply implements 5S is less sustainable because, in my experience, it can be a bit of a slog! And it is hard enough achieving sustainability when there is a clear reason to use the technique.
This implementation of 5S is then used as a vehicle for the introduction of other relevant and complementary tools. Visual Management for example, can also be usefully introduced as a natural supporting tool as the 5S becomes established. The tools and techniques then become part of a holistic strategy of reason-focused continuous improvement techniques tailored to the specific needs of the plant or organisation.
Each tool, each face of the cube, helps us view an aspect of the process at hand but only together can they be used coherently and effectively.