Lean manufacturing business is all about processes, processes, processes. What can you do faster? Better? More easily? How can flows or configurations be changed to work efficiently?

Our Continuous Improvement (CI) journeys often focus so much on the process and on things that we forget about the people. You can’t have processes without people, and you can’t improve processes without them either! The good news is there’s an entire workforce of CI process experts right at your fingertips—if you know how to engage them.

Using CI to engage employees
An engaged employee is one who is involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to his or her workplace. When you have engaged employees who feel empowered and listened to, you get a workforce that achieves more, and you get happier customers as a result. Engaged employees result in 21 percent higher profitability for a company, 17 percent higher productivity, and achieve 10 percent higher customer metrics, according to Gallup. They get to work on time more consistently and have 70 percent fewer safety incidents. It’s a clear win-win-win for your workforce, your bottom line, and your customers.

Engaging an employee means utilizing as many of his or her skills and abilities as possible. Think about it: You’re paying for the whole person, so why only rely on what they can do physically? You need their thinking skills and creativity, too!

In my experience, a lot of companies think their employees are engaged or at least have the opportunity to be engaged. But when the employees are asked about their level of engagement, they report feeling disconnected or not heard. Sure, management may say they want feedback and ideas, but there are no processes in place for those ideas to be vetted, adjusted, and evaluated. The loop is never closed, and there’s a gap between what management believes and what employees report.

Let’s take a look at one example of a common tool that many leaders point to as proof of engagement: The suggestion box. The box is filled with good intentions, metaphorically and literally. But the reality is that employees see the box and think, “Nothing I put in there will ever get heard.” Management sees the box and thinks, “That’s a storage unit for complaints.” From a CI perspective, the box is opaque so you can’t see what’s inside; it’s an object with a horizontal surface that has to be cleaned; and the box usually has a lock on it, which begs the question of why a company locks up good ideas.

With the modern tools of Continuous Improvement, you can create an environment in which employee engagement is something very real and recognized by both management and employees. The three key areas of employee engagement are “doing,” “connecting,” and “sustaining”: Create processes that employees can do, make connections between those processes and the greater strategy, and sustain a culture of purposeful leadership that turns the vague term of “engagement” into something that’s tangible and obvious to everyone.

Doing: Make a good day better
A simple definition of lean is “Continuous Improvement through people.” In action, this means that an employee can become a problem solver when he or she is equipped with the CI tool set. They are engaged in tackling their own problems and making their day better.

Note that I didn’t say “making their day a good one.” There’s a distinction between a good day and a better day. When I talk to individuals on the production floor or at the office and I ask them what a good day looks like, they respond with answers about productivity, such as: “A good day is when my machine is working” or “A good day is when I get good parts in.” But when I ask “How can YOU make your day better?” they struggle to define any action they can take. When you think about maximizing your lean efforts, the value comes when you connect to employees and engage them to take action and make a good day a better day.

See the processes behind the people
If you put ownership on employees to come up with ideas for improvement, you must also enable them to take action on those ideas. As the adage goes, “An idea is a funny thing; it doesn’t work unless you do!” This is where the “doing” comes in: The process of engagement is enabling employees to do the improvements.

Engaging employees and improving processes is like eating an elephant—you have to take one bite at a time. It’s developing the skill for noticing waste, problem-solving the improvement, and applying the process of Plan, Do, Check, and Adjust. For those of us trained in lean, we’re taught to focus on the big things. But it’s hard to get employees to think that way; instead, start small. Really small. Even though the economy is strong and many companies are busy, there are still numerous opportunities for quick improvements.

The essential role of people in your lean and continuous improvement journey

For example, we know that good things happen when we pay attention to processes. So, take the time to watch your production floor and the people walking it. What are they doing? Where, when, and why does the flow stop? Is it because someone is trying to get information they don’t have? Are they walking a long distance to get a tool? Ask employees to think of a problem that seems small but that drives them crazy. What’s their quick plan for improving it? How can two seconds of time be saved? Or, what could be implemented fast to alleviate headaches? The ideas should be quick and relatively easy, not ones that require a boardroom discussion.

I know of one company where employees were spending time tracking down the originator of a document when something was unclear or there was a question. The flow stopped, and the long interruption was a headache for everyone. One employee suggested that each document be signed by the originator so they could instantly tell who owned it. This two-second fix saved a huge amount of time and avoided many headaches; now, anyone could go directly to the originator when needed.

Give permission to try
If employees are only expected to use their physical abilities and not their minds, that’s not going to help your organization or engage the employee. You need them to be problem-solvers and not fear failure. Not everyone’s ideas for quick fixes will succeed, and that’s okay. Help employees fail fast, cheap, and often. With this sort of mentality, and with processes in place to allow for it, you become a learning organization. And because you’re starting with small ideas that only take a few seconds, there’s less risk. The less an idea negatively impacts quality or safety, the more likely you should be to try it, check it, and adjust it if needed.

What does this look like in practice? One idea is to modernize the old suggestion box comment card with a card called “Quick Wins.” On the card, an employee identifies the type of waste he or she sees (such as, a waste of time, movement, over-productivity), describes the problem, and describes his or her idea for a solution. A card like this helps the reviewer (production lead, supervisor) quickly decide whether to take action because it communicates three things: Whether the idea is small enough to consider, who needs to support and execute the idea, and whether the idea should be implemented now, put into a parking lot for later, or is not feasible.

Recognize wins  
Post the Quick Wins cards in a public place and recognize employees who are making improvements. Don’t wait to do recognition monthly or quarterly. Make sure it’s timely and in a way that’s appropriate for the employee (some may want a very formal recognition while others prefer something more low key). Creating a visual display of the Quick Wins cards and then recognizing employees will show others how fast and easy this process can be. It’s very tactical, but it’s important because it helps drive constant improvements, and it engages employees to fix the things they struggle with every day.

Connecting: Link processes to daily management 
With employees engaged in the tactical work of making a good day better, those tactics can then be linked to a higher level strategy. How do these quick wins connect to the organization’s daily management?

One way of making the connection is with a storyboard on which you track metrics that feed into your top-level targets like safety, quality, delivery/lead time, cost/productivity, and employee development. The storyboard can track whether all employees arrive on time each day, how many Quick Wins cards were submitted, and so on. A board like this defines what makes a good day better, and its metrics become part of your culture. It helps define what’s important and connects it to action.

A storyboard is just one idea, but my only rule for connecting the tactics to the daily strategy is that whatever tool you use must be visual, and it must communicate results in seven seconds or less. Avoid using graphs—those take too long to read. Anyone must be able to understand quickly whether improvements are being made and whether metrics are being hit. I like using red or green dots because you can immediately tell whether it’s a good day or week. However, don’t be surprised if you have to convince some people of the power of dots! I worked with a production manager who was skeptical about posting red and green dots on a scheduling board. How could that possibly change anything? After two months of using red and green dots, he was a true believer. The power of making things simple and visible had improved scheduling and erased one of his biggest frustrations.

Sustaining: Ensure purposeful leadership
Executing and sustaining purposeful leadership is at the highest strategic level of employee engagement, and it can be a difficult one to get right. Very few companies perform at this level.
I like the definition of purposeful leadership used by John Shook, chairman of the Lean Global Network: “Get the job done and develop your people.” If you think about this as an equation (like I do!), you could visualize it this way:

Get the job done + Develop your people = Continuously improving processes to satisfy the customer

If you really want CI, then you must develop your people. They are the key to improving your processes. Development is also the final piece of employee engagement because it closes the loop of doing, connecting, and sustaining.

Developing employees is easier said than done. In leadership, you’re constantly running around and putting out fires: You don’t have the right parts, you have to adjust the schedule, you have to move people around because you’re short in one area, and on and on. When we fight fires, we feel like we’re productive, but in reality we’re just busy. We’re not actually improving anything because we will fight those same fires tomorrow.

We’ll never get rid of fires completely, but if we have employee engagement and we’re developing our employees, we can put some of those fires out for good. Ask employees, “How are we doing? What can we do better?” and really listen to them. By talking with them, getting their feedback, and empowering them to make quick improvements themselves, you’re demonstrating purposeful leadership. It tells employees that you trust them, you value their critical thinking skills, and you know they’re capable of problem-solving successfully.

I led a Kaizen event, which is a week-long workshop that helps an organization achieve a specific goal of process improvement or minimize waste, where I met a woman who lifted 30 to 40 pound boxes and placed them on pallets before they went out to dock. During every shift, she walked seven miles and lifted the equivalent of five tons. I asked her, “Aren’t you tired?” and she responded that she went home and napped every day. With some modest improvements, we cut her walking distance in half and put the boxes on her level so she didn’t have to bend down. By asking for feedback and listening to the problems, we engaged the employee and improved the process tremendously.

Just like the Quick Wins cards for employee engagement, it’s important to create tactics and processes for sustained, purposeful leadership. If you don’t have consistency in your process, you can’t have improvements, and you end up wasting your time.

What standards do you need as a leader? For your front-line leadership of supervisors, a tool like a standard work document outlines what they must do at the start of every shift (like update the Quick Wins storyboard), what to do in the middle of their shift, and at the end of it. Perhaps once a week you have a meeting to go over objectives. By communicating this to them in writing, they know you’ve carved out a certain amount of time for them to sustain these things. These actions are important, and they’re not something that should wait until all of the fires have been put out. Plus, a standard work document provides another way to check processes if you’re not getting the results you want, or you can easily update it if processes must be changed.

With tools like these, you have a system in place to drive improvements and skill development, and those small improvements impact your topline measurements. If you’re having better days instead of just good days, those top lines should be improving.

With employees engaged in the tactical work of making a good day better, those tactics can then be linked to a higher level strategy.

When all of this comes together—making a good day better with employee engagement, connecting process to strategy, and sustaining purposeful leadership—it’s a beautiful thing to behold. One company I worked with had a challenge with operators and maintenance working together. Maintenance didn’t want the operators touching anything, and the operators said maintenance always complained about the operators doing a lousy job. There was a culture challenge, to say the least. After we’d been on the lean journey for a while and had implemented some processes, the management team did one of its regular walk-arounds. The team immediately saw that the third-shift operators were struggling with scrap. Before anything was even said, the operator reported they had indeed had problems with scrap last night, and they did some machine adjustments, but nothing happened. Per the standard work document, the operator called maintenance over to make some adjustments, but those didn’t work either.

Finally, they decided to try a different raw material and that worked, which told them something must have changed with the original raw material. The operator saved a sample of the material because she knew the management team was stopping by and would want to return the sample to the supplier. These teams, which used to have a culture challenge with each other, now had meaningful processes in place that enabled them to work together, stay engaged, and experience the improvements.

Overcoming resistance
Of course, there will probably be some employees who are resistant to engagement. That’s why you first need to start your efforts with a compelling vision. Where do you want to go? What sort of future do you see for your organization and employees? The second thing you need is dissatisfaction with the status quo. Nothing kills CI faster than the belief that everything is okay. There’s no motivation for improvement there. A “good enough” mentality will never move you from a good day to a better day.

Remember: Continuous Improvement doesn’t work unless you do! There needs to be some healthy tension around not being satisfied with where you are and a determination to keep improving.

The third piece to overcoming resistance is to take small steps. It’s like losing weight: You can’t make drastic changes and expect everyone to be happy or that the changes will stick. Start small and get some quick wins under your belt that show progress and motivate the team.

The final piece is having skill development to balance out everything else. If your employees don’t have the right skills or don’t feel empowered, you’ll have resistance.

When I think about overcoming resistance, an experience with a particular company comes to mind. This company was doing changeover in the machine shop, and the employee—we’ll call him Tony—was a good employee and polite, but it was obvious he was pretty resistant to the changes. I walked his area with him and talked through some 5S tools and quick wins for removing his frustrations, and then I left. Weeks later, I was visiting with the operations manager and I asked him how Tony was doing. He told me that he ran into Tony at a community event and the first thing Tony asked was, “Did you see what I did with 5S? Have you seen the improvements in my area?” Tony went from being a skeptic to a champion because he had the process, the tools, and the empowerment to fix his own frustrations.

CI through engagement: Powerful results  
As leaders, you owe employees good processes that support your strategies for improvement. The 5S pillars for organizing, cleaning, developing, and sustaining a productive work environment are a great place to start thinking about and creating those tactical processes for getting employees engaged.

Engagement isn’t something that can wait until work slows down or you have no other priorities, because those two things will probably never happen. Start now and start small. The results will become a competitive advantage not only in terms of the benefits I mentioned above—like less absenteeism, greater productivity, and better customer satisfaction—but it can be an important way to retain employees as our industry faces labor challenges.

The bottom line is this: Continuous Improvement takes work, and your employees are the problem-solvers. You have an entire workforce of CI experts right in front of you if you know how to engage them. If you focus on the little things, like the quick wins, it doesn’t take much to get the ball rolling. The results of employee engagement, as you can tell from the stories I’ve shared here, are very powerful. In the end, you won’t just make a good day a better day. You’ll make a good year a better year, and a good culture a better culture.

Featured story in the Summer 2019 issue of Enterprise Minnesota magazine. 

Return to Summer 2019 magazine