It’s a given, we’re all continually aiming to improve. I can’t go a day it seems on social media without reading tips on how to think smarter, work harder, achieve more. But often these tips lack the structure to create long-lasting change. To build sustainable improvement on a day-to-day basis, businesses and individuals can benefit from applying a Continuous Improvement method.
The continuous improvement model involves the ongoing process to improve. It utilizes collaborative perspectives (managers and employees), focusing on the customer first, working to take smaller steps which tend to be quicker and less expensive, measuring improvement continually, removing wasteful resources and ensuring ongoing feedback. The Toyota Production System (TPS) is one of the most famous and successful examples. TPS developed Lean manufacturing – in short, eliminating what doesn’t add value to improve processes and customer satisfaction.
To find out how to do the same, we interviewed Abdul Alzindani, executive lean leader at GE Renewable Energy. Abdul shares tips on how to adopt a Continuous Improvement mindset and how to introduce the method to our daily working lives.
The steps to become a lean leader
Beginning his lean career in high school, Abdul was nominated to participate in the first year of the famous US FIRST competition. ‘In that experience, I got to work with Ford Motor Company engineers. That experience gave me the passion I have today for lean and continuous improvement. In college, I did my internship with Danaher and got a chance to see how lean can transform the way people work’, says Abdul. Once graduating from North Carolina State University, Abdul continued his lean journey at Tyco International, receiving a Green Belt certification. This was followed by receiving a Black Belt certification at Lear Corporation.
‘While at Lear, I had the opportunity to work with Toyota and the other OEMs. The experience to see what true lean is on the shop floor at Toyota changed my mindset about how lean can truly enable us to perform our best work every day. After Lear, I eventually ended up in the pharma industry working at Merck for almost 10 years. Taking what I learned in automotive and applying it to pharma was a challenge. When you’re forced to apply lean in a different industry, it challenges and it stretches you to go beyond tools. I had to rely on my ability to influence people and focused more on the “why” before getting into the “what” and “how”. That experienced taught me the importance of focusing on people first. After Merck, I landed at GE where I am now trying to apply the mindset of continuous improvement to the way a great company like GE does work, Abdul says.
Adopting the mindset
When asked to define how he views continuous improvement, Abdul remarked, ‘The way I look at it is fairly simple. It’s about striving to be better today than we were yesterday. As human beings, we all have the desire to be better. The challenge is unlocking that desire in the corporate world’.
Whether an employee or employer, everyone in business can take steps to advance their careers by adopting a continuous improvement mindset. To achieve this: ‘Apply the basic principles, starting with putting customer first, making problems visible and solving them urgently and collaboratively. If we do that as part of our jobs, naturally we improve our processes and ultimately our performance, hence, advancing our careers and the careers of others around us’, says Abdul.
As continuous improvement involves a team effort (everyone’s opinion being heard), it’s not necessarily easy to implement when in an environment that doesn’t follow this method. Abdul advises to avoid ‘trying to change things without bringing people along with us. I suggest starting very simple. Focus on processes or process steps that make it hard for us and our colleagues. Create opportunities where people come together to work on fixing those process steps that make it hard for us to do our jobs. If you create some wins that way, people will naturally want to see more of that. That’s how we can build momentum and buy in at the same time.’
Making continuous improvement a way of life
‘This is a challenge for nearly all companies. It’s easy to do a kaizen [a continuous improvement philosophy] here and there or projects every couple of months. It’s tough to make it part of the way we work. One way to make continuous improvement part of the way we “live” is to focus on the management system. Creating a management system that allows people to manage on daily bases, where problems are made visible at the process level and the very same people that work in the process are engaged in solving those problems is the best way to make continuous improvement part of how we run the business’, Abdul says.
While he’s not a big fan of the “tools approach”, Abdul does believe in visual management as a way for individuals to implement daily improvement. ‘Now that’s not a “tool” per se, rather, it’s an approach to make things visible. A key part of continuous improvement is making things visible so that we can quickly understand normal from abnormal. When it’s easy to see normal from abnormal, then it makes it easier to work on the right things on daily bases. That’s where I would start. Make things visual and simple to understand…”at a glance”.
And in terms of shifting your mindset to a lean mentality; ‘Shifting our mindset takes time. It takes practice and perseverance. The best way to change our mindset is to continue to apply, make mistakes, learn from the mistakes and continue to grow as a result from those mistakes. Too often we expect perfection and that becomes the very reason why we then shy away from even starting our lean journey. Start with simple things in your own process. Try basic ways to address the things that make your day hard. When you feel the benefit to your daily work in the form of better performance, others will see it and will be interested in knowing more about what you’ve done. Afterall, we all want to associate ourselves with successful people. When people get more interested in learning about what you’re doing, you’re going to have more conviction for lean than you did before. It’s a great virtuous cycle to be on’, says Abdul.
Before our interview ended, we asked what one piece of career advice he would give to his younger self and why.
‘OH Boy! There are lots I would give myself. I’ve made, and continue to make many mistakes. Looking back at 22 years of lean work, the one piece of advice I would give my younger self would be to focus on understanding the lean system, not just the tools. It took me almost 12 years before I started learning lean as a system. Too often we fall trap to wanting to learn the tools, which are easier to see and understand. It’s through years of experience that we eventually start connecting the dots and see the “whole”. When we do, our mindset changes and we approach things completely differently. Knowing this fact earlier in our career would allow us to accelerate our learning and add value much earlier in life’ Abdul says.
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