Is Improvement a fairy tale? Or your New Year’s resolution…

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, a beautiful princess and a handsome prince lived in a golden palace. They ate only the most delicious food from dishes made of the finest porcelain – or gold and silver on special occasions. They wore gorgeous clothes, made of the most exquisite materials. The prince and princess wanted for nothing. And they lived happily ever after.

Isn’t it funny that in fairy tales, there are always lists of manufactured goods – clothes, food, glass slippers– but never any mention of anyone manufacturing these wonderful things (apart from the occasional fairy god-mother). Maybe it’s not that surprising, though. Being part of the manufacturing sector has never really been the stuff of fairy tales. And certainly, you’d be hard-pressed to find anybody manufacturing today who felt they were part of a fairy story.

There’s no denying that manufacturing is having a tough time. There’s always been competition, both domestic and from overseas. The growth in manufacturing investment in rapidly developing economies like India and China has introduced an increased level of competition. Once, we could point to the poor quality of the goods that were being imported. Now the difference often lies only in the cost. With access to low cost labor, some competitors can almost flood the Europe and the US with cheaper, high quality consumer goods.

Some companies, of course, have voted with their feet by moving manufacturing abroad so they can take advantage of the availability of low cost labour. Some companies sit with their heads in the sand, hoping things will change (a high risk strategy to say the least). Many others have staked their futures on business improvement, looking for ways to reduce costs and improve profits.

With business processes and operations improvement, there are various routes to salvation, just as there are with self improvement. In fact, it’s easy to see a number of parallels.

First up is: Buy an impressive piece of equipment. Of course, modern up-to date equipment can be a vital in improvement, and for many manufacturers it is the first thought. However, be warned by the experiences of all those would-be get-fitters who’ve bought themselves home multi-gyms that quietly sit gathering dust. Like the adverts for the home gyms, those for the manufacturing equipment sell hope. The adverts for the training gear sell the dream of becoming as fit, firm and six-packed as the beautiful people using it in the picture. (Is that where the prince and princess went?) The literature from the manufacturers of your business equipment sell the vision of smart, modern, computer-driven machines offering a world without stoppages or day-to-day faults. The reality can be quite different: budget overruns; added complexity; puzzlement as the savings outlined in the justification don’t quite make it to the bottom line. As with the multi-gym, the shine can quickly wear off, leaving behind the realisation that you’ve just wasted plenty of cash and a substantial amount of floor space.

Buy a self improvement book. There are lots of guides out there if you want to lose weight, get fit, live at peace with yourself or give up smoking. The same is true in business improvement. And a number of them are very effective. Six Sigma is the latest in a venerable line of saviour methodologies which includes TQM, TPM, JIT and Lean. Many of these guides litter the bookshelves of managers across the world. They are capable of delivering some truly astonishing results – but only if they are used by a sizeable portion of the organisation. Too often, though, the reality is that one enthusiast is patiently indulged by those around him or her, like a family member on the latest diet or fitness routine. People go along with it to some extent, but aren’t enthusiastic about the implications. Eventually, they know, the enthusiast will weaken and come back to the good old ways.

Go on a diet. It looks so simple. Trim a few costs. It’s just like the maths of losing weight. Every dieter knows what they should and shouldn’t eat. Every dieter knows that using more energy than the calories you take in from food will lead to weight loss. Many dieters can stick to it for days, weeks or even months at a time. It’s the same with improvement plans to reduce costs. Somehow, unseen forces divert us from the paths of righteousness. Often the first to go when things go wrong in manufacturing are the “improvement” activities. Improvement meetings are forgotten, the graphs on the wall get out of date, good intentions fall by the wayside. Finally, the initiative becomes the butt of sniggered jokes. Like a failed dieter’s lonely conscience, the improvement champion bleats on until the organisation totally blocks out the guilt. We could have been a contender – but here we are, surrounded by the empty food packets and the squalor of our former every day life.

Hire a personal trainer. For many would-be improvers, a major intervention is needed. The purchase of equipment or the simple use of will-power just doesn’t seem to work and hope is lost. In Hollywood, sticking to a diet and keeping fit can mean the difference between A-list celebrity or C-list ridicule. So they worked it out a long time ago. Having a personal trainer can be expensive, slightly embarrassing to admit to (for some) and hard work. But if you find the right coach or trainer, astounding results can be achieved. This personal coach arrangement seems to work because it provides an outside view of what’s happening. It’s easy for individuals to miss the signs that things are going wrong or to stop listening to the conscience that points out what they should be doing. An essential part of the improvement process is getting early positive results, and then building on those results so that the improvement behaviour is reinforced. The real challenge is being able and willing to trust the personal trainer enough to make sure that your behaviour changes fundamentally.

For manufacturers, their version of a personal trainer is the consultant. Choosing to use a consultant can be a difficult decision, sometimes borne of despair. Like other forms of improvement, it sometimes results in failure. Sometimes, though, impressive results can be achieved by using outside help. Key to getting the most out of the help is being self-aware as an organization, understanding your company’s behavior traits and being realistic about the commitment involved. In the end, of course, it’s down to you.

If you’d like more information on how we can help you please contact us.