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Greetings, Troubleshooters! Thanks for tuning in to Troubleshooting Thursdays. This week we’re talking about Continuous Improvement, and specifically Six Sigma, and an easy way to enhance your CI efforts that might not yet have considered. If you’re a manufacturing executive responsible for CI, you’ll want to read on…

What is Continuous Improvement?

Continuous Improvement (CI) has been called the most important business philosophy of the past 50 years. Broadly defined, continuous improvement is an ongoing effort to improve products, services, or processes, often by incremental changes but also by large-scale, breakthrough changes. It involves a company-wide culture of continual striving to improve processes and products, quality and efficiency through continual reflection on and brainstorming and innovating about how processes can be improved.

Born out of the total quality management (TQM) movement, CI was initially a response to Japan’s meteoric manufacturing rise in the late 1970s and early 1980s. As the West tried to catch up, books such as Kaoru Ishikawa’s What is Total Quality Control? The Japanese Way (1985) and Masaaki Imai’s Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success helped popularize the idea of total quality control.

“Kaizen” means improvement, and is the name given to the Japanese philosophy of continuously improving all functions of a business by engaging all employees, from the lowliest right up to the CEO. Toyota incorporated principles of Kaizen in The Toyota Way, a managerial and production approach also known as “lean management” or “lean manufacturing,” implemented by Toyota around 2000. It quickly became a role model for manufacturing companies around the globe. Other models of CI have evolved since then, including PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act), DMAIC (Define-Measure-Analyze-Improve-Control) and—the one we’re interested in today—Six Sigma.

Using Six Sigma for Continuous Improvement

Six Sigma is both a philosophy and a method that provides tools for organizations to improve their business processes. As a philosophy, it looks to reduce variation in business processes that cause waste and inefficiency, and holds that all work can be defined, measured, analyzed, improved, and controlled (that’s the DMAIC system, often but not always used in Six Sigma). 

As a method, it is a disciplined, data-driven and statistically-oriented approach for eliminating or reducing defects in any business process. The term “Six Sigma” derives from statistics and refers to six standard deviations (sigma is used to indicate variation) between the mean and the nearest specification limitation. It aspires to a level of 3.4 defects per million opportunities. To implement it in an organization, it requires a hierarchical team structure and ensures that team members are trained according to their roles. (It uses a martial arts framework in which team members are given titles such as “Black Belt,” “Green Belt,” or “Yellow Belt” and are trained in advanced statistics and other quality management skills, depending on their level). Its main focus on process variation results in fewer defects, and higher profits, morale, and product or service quality. 

Many Fortune 500 companies claim to have used Six Sigma effectively, among them Amazon.com, 3M, Boeing, Ford, GE, McKesson, US Army and Marines, Johnson Controls, and GEICO. (Of course there’s Sears, which seems to have used it ineffectively!) According to research published by iSixSigma, between 1987 and 2007 Six Sigma saved Fortune 500 companies a total of $427 billion.

Digital, simulation-based training for your Six Sigma CI

Continuous improvement, as you can imagine is not always easy. In fact, the ISO 9001 terminology has changed to “continual improvement,” since continuous improvement implies that things are getting better 100% of the time without ceasing or interruption. It can be challenging to be constantly looking for new opportunities to improve. 

One area that you might not have considered yet for quantifiable improvement is staff training. In the case of electrical troubleshooting training, it’s fairly obvious that a huge opportunity for improving efficiency lies in reducing wasteful downtime. Training staff how to quickly, safely, and effectively diagnose and repair production line equipment has a massive payoff (when you consider that downtime can cost in the multiple thousands of dollars per minute). That’s certainly quantifiable!

But you can take your CI one step further if you implement a digital, simulation-based program, like the Simutech Training System. Because it is digital, all trainee data can be captured and analyzed. Simutech Multimedia’s Admin Portal (Course Manager) allows program administrators to track participant progress and receive detailed reports that assess development and identify areas for improvement. The data that comes from the Admin Portal measures trainees’ progress and is easily analyzed to determine who needs more training and in what area, and who is ready to go live, creating efficiencies throughout the training process. It’s web-based, so both trainees and admins can log in any time, from anywhere. If you’re trying to get ISO 9001 certified or maintain your certification, this is one more thing you can show the ISO auditor.

The goal of continuous improvement is to never stop looking for ways to do things better. As a manufacturing executive, ensuring that your staff is trained with a computer-based simulation program that provides actionable data dovetails nicely with this goal.

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