Don’t Sacrifice Quality for Efficiency

Don’t Sacrifice Quality for Efficiency

Efficiency is a 2-sided sword. It’s easy to get infatuated with the bottom-line improvements that process cuts offer, but it’s all for naught if the quality of your product suffers. 

Cut processes too deeply, and quality is the first thing to take a hit. Poor-quality products cause a dangerous ripple effect through toxic word of mouth. 

The solution: build quality into your daily processes. It’s an integral part of Process Improvement and helps you negotiate the balance between cutting for efficiency and maintaining a top-notch product.



A Culture of Quality

You can improve your processes from the corner office, but the improvements won’t last. To be sustainable (and save some real money), you need workforce buy-in, and for that, you need to define a focus.

Focus on efficiencies in meetings, and people get scared. “Efficiencies” mean job cuts. Tilt the conversation to quality and ears perk up because:

A culture of quality will deputize every worker to ensure that every product sold represents the best of the company. Once they’re empowered to be stewards of quality, they’ll probably be more receptive to hearing about efficiencies in processes. 


Mistake-Proofing Your Processes

“Quality control” tends to happen once all the money has already gone into a product—at the end. The farther your defective product gets on the assembly line before it’s pulled, the more expensive that defect becomes.

Mistake-proofing (poka-yoke in Japanese), is about both catching defects early and empowering your workers to prevent them. It builds on the culture of quality that you’ll be reminding people about every morning at your stand-up meeting.

It’s tempting to give workers such clear instructions that they can shut off their minds. Empowering them, and building a Lean Culture, is about asking them to examine and think about the product through every step of the manufacturing workflow. 

Every worker who touches your product should be an extension of quality control. Don’t wait until the product is moments from being shipped; empower your team to spot defects and pull the product from the workflow before it costs you another dime. 


Automated Detection

Jidoka, which complements poka-yoke, is for larger manufacturers who have moved to machines for a portion of their workflows. It works on the same principle.

While poka-yoke is empowering people to think beyond assembly by continually assessing quality, jidoka is programming your machinery to do the same. Whether it’s adding an extra measurement or testing durability, the machine checks and rings the alarm when it encounters any defects.

When a defect triggers the alarm, a person takes over. That’s why jidoka is also called “automation with a human touch.”


The Balance of Quality

Ironically, efficiency often trumps quality when it comes to cost savings, even though quality defines the value of your product. Your customers don’t judge you on efficiency; they judge you by how well your product does what you’ve promised. 


Quality means doing it right when no one is looking.

Henry Ford

Where Are Your Manufacturing Bottlenecks?

Manufacturing a product, whether that’s a pick-up truck or a bar of soap, is a current of processes that happen one after the other. Ideally, the current flows like electricity.

But what happens when one step stops the current? Or when multiple currents converge into one, slowing all subsequent processes to a crawl? It’s a bottleneck, and it eats at profit like crazy.

Like all Process Improvement, getting brutal with bottlenecks requires identifying them first. That’s tough, and here are two reasons why:

  • Few businesses take the time to visualize the flow of their processes.
  • The bottleneck is probably invisible, in that it’s been “baked-in” over time to how your business works.


Process Bottleneck

The obvious example is the “jam factory”. Three conveyor belts with jars ready to be boxed converge toward one poor packaging employee—and they can’t keep up. Hire another employee: fixed.

jam factory bottleneck example

That’s the easy and obvious one, so those bottlenecks tend to be cleared up quickly. But, want to know about the bottlenecks that don’t get cleared up? Check that stack of papers on the corner of your desk.

No matter how much we delegate, the boss or manager is still going to be integrated into many processes. Often, it’s just to approve the purchase/hire/work order/etc. That’s fine, until waiting for approvals becomes a problem.

It’s common for the costliest bottleneck to happen in the corner office, where a boss with a lot on their plate doesn’t approve or review in a timely way. What’s worse is that people often won’t speak up because—well, you know…


Resource Bottleneck

Manufacturing is about assembling or manipulating raw materials into a saleable product. You need a smooth inward flow, and that’s harder than it sounds.

You have suppliers who must provide on time. You need freight logistics, whether that’s Canada Post or train cars, to get materials to you. And you’ll have to stop work if supplies run out, warehouse if materials overflow, and there are deadly wastes associated with both.

To pinpoint resource bottlenecks, map each step and shipment and see how long the journey is from supplier to finished product. Even 5% of raw materials tucked into a warehouse corner somewhere will devour your bottom line.

And that brings me to Kanban, the best weapon we have against bottlenecks.


Kanban Solution

If the bottleneck is baked-in, then it has become invisible. That means tolerating its profit-sucking existence is your daily routine.

If that hits home, you need to change how you see your routines. Enter Kanban: the elegantly simple tool for that.

The Japanese word loosely translates to “card you can see.” Kanban is about visualizing process flows in simple ways to identify the bottlenecks.

kanban board

Here’s how:

  • Lay out your Kanban on a good sized white board. Identify one vertical column for each step in your process. Horizontal rows (“swimlanes”) will be for workflows moving through the process.
  • Buy a stack of pretty Post-it notes and stick on one for each new workflow that needs to move through the processes.
  • Watch for steps where the Post-its accumulate. That’s your bottleneck.

Be consistent. What may feel childish to start will quickly disclose inefficiencies that you either didn’t think existed or had learned to ignore. 

Put the board in the center of the office where everyone sees it. And if the “Boss’s Review” column is the one always loaded with Post-its, be prepared to make the changes that you need. 


When unaddressed, bottlenecks have another cost: employee morale. Chances are, if there’s a bottleneck somewhere down the line, there’s a frustrated person or team trying to squeeze through. The sooner you address your bottlenecks, the sooner you’ll restore a healthy sense of flow within your business.


“In most organizations, the bottleneck is at the top of the bottle.”

– Peter Drucker

Creating a Change Team in Manufacturing

Creating a Change Team in Manufacturing

You see the ways your manufacturing business could change for the better. You can sense it like a change in air pressure. You know that your processes could be more efficient, and that more innovation would help you buffer supply disruptions and skill deficits. To accomplish this, people are the key.

In theory, Process Improvement can save the manufacturing industry a ton of money and increase the bottom line. I say “in theory” because, without a Change Team in place, it can’t become reality. 

Your Change Team is the front line of Process Improvement. They articulate and implement your vision on the shop floor, in the lunch rooms, and even to your customers. You sense the change; they make it real. 

creating a change team in manufacturing

Find Your Change Leaders

Small changes don’t happen by themselves, especially if they’re to be consistent. Your Change Leaders are the ones who, hour after hour, keep Process Improvement top of mind.

Think of your existing staff. They drive your company and know its inner workings better than anyone. Hopefully, your Change Leaders are there. 

Who are your most engaged employees? The ones already coming to you with ideas on how to do better. The ones who care, not because they have to, but because it’s their nature. 

Start with them. And let them inspire others to the challenge.


Roles in Change Leadership


roles change leadershipPeople have unique strengths. Don’t be an obstacle to that; embrace it. Here are the roles your Change Leaders need to fill. Put them into the roles they’re passionate about and they’ll bring their daily A-game. 

Communicators: Don’t fool yourself – you still have skeptics about this whole “Process Improvement thing” you’re up to. You need someone to not only share your vision, but articulate it with purpose when you’re not around. 

Advocates: Your skeptics will say they’ve heard this all before and swear it’ll fizzle soon enough. Change Leaders will need to be consistent about why change is vital and how to make it happen. Ideally, you’ll have an advocate at every step of your process—from the office, to the floor, to the trucks. 

Liaisons: Sustainable change is organizational. It affects employees and customers alike. No one likes surprises in business, so each group needs to be advised and guided through what is happening and how it benefits everyone. 

Coaches: Your team will need guidance and they’ll need to be challenged. Coaches do both. Coming from a peer, ongoing motivation is a powerful thing.

Resistance Managers: You’re going to get criticism. Rather than stifling it (which doesn’t end well), your Change Leaders can engage and respond constructively.


Empower Your Change Team

How many employees are driven every day to change your business for the better?  How many are doing the bare minimum until the end of their shift? And how many are somewhere in the middle? 

No one is going to be proactive about positive change unless you show them that the business is worth the investment of their energy. And that means investing in them first. 

Empowerment is a leap of faith. You need to give your employees the opportunity to contribute their perspective to the Process Improvement project. 


Not everyone will step up, and that’s normal. But give everyone the opportunity to be a part of a special initiative, and often your Change Team will come out of the woodwork organically.


“Change is the law of life and those who look only to the past or present are sure to miss the future.”

 John F Kennedy

Real and False Urgency in Manufacturing

Real and False Urgency in Manufacturing

real vs false urgency header

A culture of urgency is the fuel to drive Process Improvement forward. But when urgency breaks free of perspective, it becomes “busy-work”. And that can get dangerous on the shop floor.

If you’ve come any distance down the “Lean Road”, you know that your sense of vision is the best motivator for your team. It’s not the kind of vision that you summarize in an email memo. It’s the kind that you demonstrate, day in and day out, that inspires others to join you.

Vision creates perspective. Perspective is what keeps urgency from becoming dangerous. Here’s the difference between the 2 types of urgency:

  • False urgency needs this job done now and then the next job done now. It thinks about the next step and then the next. It doesn’t coordinate with others. In a Manufacturing setting, it can lead to people running down the stairs 2 steps at a time, cutting corners on safety protocols, and machines not being cleaned or serviced properly.
  • True urgency finds the horizon, and create a map as it charts backwards. It keeps perspective, knowing the goal is urgent but the task is not. It neither hustles nor bustles, but takes correct, coordinated steps, exactly when it needs to. True urgency understands that slowing down to keep things safe is the only way to achieve business goals.

real vs false urgency manufacturing

Here are a couple ways to keep your culture of efficiency as safe as it is productive:


1) Don’t Make Busy-Martyrs

How “busy” are your employees telling you they are? Are they wearing their busyness like a badge? When you ask about their task, do they throw how busy they are back at you?

Martyrs-of-busyness are only productive within their tiny sphere. They don’t collaborate with others, and that both brings down morale and creates costly silos between teams and departments.

Sometimes you need to slow people down in order for them to be more effective. That’s why production based KPIs like quotes are double-edged swords—if not managed properly, they lead to “busyness” and that makes people sloppy.

It’s up to the boss to create, or discourage, the culture where busy-martyrs thrive. That sense of inward-seeking, anxious busyness is the essence of false urgency. It leads to safety checks being skipped, spills not getting cleaned up, and accidents happening all over your business.


2) Dialogue with Your Team

An over-exuberant sense of urgency can be dangerous, but a healthy culture of urgency should improve your safety conditions.

Dialogue is like oxygen to process improvement.  Conversations, both formal in meetings and informal on the shop floor, are what keep the sense of urgency to keep improving alive.

Open the lines of communication and your employees will do more than offer ideas. They’ll point out potential hazards that you haven’t seen before. Not only will ongoing communication drive urgency forward: it will improve the safety of your business.

steps to urgency in manufacturing

In the manufacturing industry, quality output is vital to everyone who touches the organization—your team, your customers, and the business itself. Healthy urgency means accepting the challenge to deliver better. And that can’t be rushed.

Creating a Sense of Urgency in Manufacturing

Creating a Sense of Urgency in Manufacturing

urgency in manufacturing

urgency in manufacturing processSuccessful process improvement needs to be cultural, and urgency must be at the cultural heart. Whether or not your entire team is driven towards process improvement will decide if your organizational change will succeed or fail.

Here’s how to build that culture of urgency:


1) Focus on Financials

Staff usually have no idea how profitable (or unprofitable) the business is. Chances are that they think you sleep on a pile of money.

Open up about the business. Tell them what areas are losing money and why. Make them understand how competitive your manufacturing environment really is.

Engaging your team is more than pep talks. It’s teaching them about the company they work for. They’re invested financially too – they pay the mortgage with this job. Trust them enough to tell them why process improvement is so important, and they’ll feel the urgency to help.


2) Identify Waste as a Group

Being there to listen to someone who tells you about waste is effective. But providing the space for people to assemble and identify waste together is powerful.

Create groups by department. Ask people to spend some time beforehand thinking about waste to prepare (give them this time, don’t ask them to make it magically appear).

Conduct the meeting roundtable style with the bosses keeping their mouths shut. It’s the employees’ turn. Give them the chance to talk and they will, and what they say will save you money.


3) Inspire Them

Process improvement needs everyone’s engagement, but it needs your vision. Urgency comes from being inspired, and inspiration comes from leadership. It’s a common theme in process improvement and Lean that leading change can’t be done from the corner office; it happens on the shop floor.

Inspiration is more realistic than idealistic. Set actionable goals with timelines and accountability. Get everyone involved and move towards them together. Stay transparent about what parts of the plan are working what needs to be improved.


Make Sure Urgency is Productive

There are 2 kinds of urgency. There’s the running place-to-place, always-busy-never-focused, working-harder-but-not-smarter urgency. It’s unproductive, even dangerous, especially in a manufacturing environment.

Productive urgency is being driven not to work faster, but smarter. It’s following the processes you’re used to, but opening your eyes to the waste that’s in plain sight.


two types of productivity

Creating a wide-scale sense of urgency can be a heavy lift in a process-based industry like manufacturing. With the process switch on, sometimes brains switch off. We need processes for efficiency and uniformity, but they can pave the way for complacency.


Urgency goes hand-in-hand with a sense of ownership. Take the steps to involve your team today, and let them in on the impact their productivity is making on the business. When your team knows how much their contributions matter, a sense of urgency will naturally become a part of your business’ culture.


“I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.”

Leonardo da Vinci

Lean Leadership in Manufacturing

Lean Leadership in Manufacturing

lean leadership in manufacturing


Manufacturing leadership can easily become about nothing but processes, logistics, safety, and efficiency. If it’s your daily routine to circulate from your office to the boardroom and back again, that needs to be disrupted.

Change Leadership requires the leader’s personal evolution from managing tasks to managing people. It’s a change of focus that needs to leap off the memos and into your routine.

Be more visible. Be seen on the shop floor and on the odd coffee break. Be the “good cop” sometimes, and ask about more than work. Get to know the people who are going to build your business.


Inspire People, Don’t Bulldoze

Change Leaders need to articulate their vision clearly to themselves (don’t skip that part), and then to their team. But what about those who are comfortable just the way things are?

If you bulldoze through them with your vision, it taints the process from the beginning. When you encounter the “but we’ve always done it this way” crowd (often referred to as the old guard), you need to use your vision to erode their resistance. Here’s how:

change leadership in manufacturing



If you’re a quiet leader who likes to keep to yourself, that will need to change. Change Leadership is about building people, and that takes advanced communication skills. If you lack these, but want to become that leader, there’s no harm in reaching out to a professional coach or other mentor to help you.

Here’s what communication looks like in a change-driven manufacturing business:

communication change-driven manufacturing



Change Leadership begins with authentically asking your team for their ideas. But it goes on from there.

Ideas aren’t worth much without accountability driven execution. You’ll be spending more of your time coaching and developing your team, but your other pressure aren’t taking a holiday.

Delegation is the natural evolution of empowerment. Invest in your team, build processes for them to be able to execute their ideas, then learn to step back. Your stress level will decrease as your employees’ new responsibilities become routine, and their ideas become part of systemic change.


Visualize It

Process improvement is about constant definition and measurement. People need to see where change is needed, what change is happening, and how successful change has been. And they need to see it in a glance.

Be transparent with your KPIs for delivery, cost, safety, etc. Buy a big whiteboard and use it to track the course of each KPI daily. If delivery isn’t on target, there’s a reason. The team directly involved with transportation needs to know that, be motivated, and sniff out waste to change the course.

Make the whiteboard democratic. Put it in the centre of the office (not in the boardroom) and provide post-it’s for ideas. Make it the hub of your daily stand-ups and keep it simple.


A successful shift to Lean Leadership relies on making the transition feel natural to your team. Start small. Introduce the whiteboard, and invite people to use it as a team communication tool. Build trust by helping your team get to know you as well as you’d like to know them. Successful change is cumulative, so taking it one step at a time can help build a more cohesive team dynamic as you move forward.


“The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change. The leader adjusts the sails.”

 John Maxwell


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