My first introduction to continuous improvement

hot wheels ramp

My first introduction to continuous improvement was probably figuring out how to launch Hot Wheels farther by raising the ramp height.  My formal introduction to continuous improvement was via a company (at the time) called Masland.  Masland, an automotive supplier, had bought a manufacturing facility that I worked at as Quality Engineer.

They practiced a form of continuous improvement called COMPASS.  COMPASS stood for (I think) continuous optimization of manufacturing processes, administrative systems and support.  COMPASS had a pretty logo, a manual and a tagline:  Finding the true north.  In essence, any process had one true way to perform the task.  If you looked at all of the steps involved, there would be obvious roadblocks to performing the task most efficiently.  Given that this was manufacturing, you can picture an old electrical box left in the middle of a work area that employees had to maneuver around, or worse, drive a forklift around and it was obviously impeding the work flow.  Let alone being a safety issue.  The old excuses of "it's always been there" or "it would add cost to move" rarely stood up to reason in the COMPASS process.  If the impedance was slowing the work flow down, it was already costing the business money.  If the impedance was a safety issue, it was adding risk (another type of cost) to the business.

Another great feature of the COMPASS process was the use of cross functional teams.  Each time a COMPASS group was formed, it required the inclusion of people of varying disciplines, backgrounds, titles, etc..  If you were to include only those people who utilize the same tools everyday, they would probably see the solution in terms of how to best apply their tool to fix the problem.  The Andrew Maslow quote goes something like "if all you've got is a hammer, every problem is a nail".  With ideas flowing in from all angles to solve the problem, ultimately the best solution would be self explanatory.  These teams also provided a secondary benefit, people who normally would not get to work together had to work together.  Even better, they had to solve tough problems together, thus leading to a real sense of shared accomplishment.

Most people think of continuous improvement as squeezing everything out of a process, but I think of it as eliminating obstacles in the way of business success.  If productivity improves, more teams can be formed to solve the next problem.  If your staff can learn how to work together, they can help each other succeed.  If you can start solving problems,  you can free people to innovate and expand your business.

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