Working in the manufacturing industry, one of your goals is to move towards a state of continuous improvement. You want to increase efficiency, reduce waste, and optimize resources. But how exactly?

In this article, after learning what continuous improvement is, we explore examples and practical applications. Finally, we explain why the right environment is key.

What is Continuous Improvement in Manufacturing?

Continuous improvement in manufacturing is the technique of studying a production cycle and finding multiple, small-scale processes that someone can work on and improve. These compact, measured changes eventually merge into larger, more significant ones. Gradually, the whole production process sees a considerable improvement. 

Continuous improvement is both a mindset and a culture, and it must be an ongoing effort. You’ll see processes, products, and services getting enhanced over time. For these manufacturing improvements to take hold, the entire organization must engage. Collaboration between departments, feedback, and innovation are all encouraged when striving for operational excellence.

These small changes start with the team on the shop floor. In amongst the action every day, they understand what works and what doesn’t. They’ll know what needs changing and improving first. 

 A comprehensive roadmap is essential when kickstarting a journey towards continuous improvement. Here, we break down methodologies, strategies, and practical examples. These will help you stay competitive and innovative in the ever-evolving manufacturing landscape.

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What is an Example of Continuous Improvement in Manufacturing?

Companies use several strategies to implement continuous improvement and all strive for the same results: a constant advancement in production. It’s important to know which one will fit your company culture for smooth implementation. It’s also important to know that you don’t have to pick one over another. Take all the elements you believe will help solve the specific issues you’re facing. 

Kaizen (PDCA)

Kaizen, translated from Japanese, means “change for the better.” A cornerstone of continuous improvement ideology, it emphasizes small, manageable steps. Everyone can perform them. These slowly lead to more considerable changes. Unlike a more substantial, sudden transformation, these small steps lead to far fewer disruptions to the manufacturing process. To achieve these small steps, Kaizen introduces a 4-step process. 

What are the four components of continuous improvement within Kaizen?

  • Plan
  • Do
  • Check
  • Act

PDCA is continuous and constant cycle. The “Plan” element is where a problem is found and analyzed. You can then generate a solution for the problem. In the “Do” phase, apply the solution on a small scale. When you then “Check,” you can analyze the impact of the change. You can start the “Act” phase if there are no issues. The solution can now be standardized across the organization. The search for the next problem can begin, and a new “Plan” is implemented. 

Kaizen Plan Do Check Act (PDCA) cycle

Six Sigma

Six Sigma takes a more data-driven approach to its methodology. This approach is designed to cut defects and ensure a high-quality end product. Six Sigma follows a 5-step DMAIC process (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control). 

  • In the “Define” stage, outline clear project goals.
  • The “Measure” phase gathers all the data necessary to assess the problem. 
  • The “Analyze” phase uses data to deepen understanding of the issues and to find the root cause. 
  • In the “Improve” phase, apply solutions to address what the data found. 
  • By establishing monitoring and controls, the “Control” stage ensures sustained success by preventing a repeat of the primary issue. 

The strength of Sigma Six is its emphasis on data, analysis, and results that you can measure. The name comes from how a sigma is one standard deviation from the mean. If a process is six or less sigmas from the mean, it has achieved a high quality. In-depth statistics lead to in-depth solutions. Products that meet client expectations can be consistently delivered. 

Six Sigma standard deviation graph
Six Sigma standard deviation graph

Lean methodology

Lean continuous improvement centers on the efficient use of resources and waste reduction. The whole company should get involved. Workers contribute ideas and strategies, leading to efficiency gains. 

The ultimate goal is to eliminate waste. Lean defines waste as activities that don’t add value. These include overproduction, delays and stoppages, excess inventory, and more. Not only is waste then reduced, but costs too. You can quickly address immediate inefficiencies. Lean principals, explored below, seek to address inefficiencies rapidly, thus creating a culture of continuous improvement throughout the organization.

Once you know the type of strategy you want to implement, the next big question is how?

5 Practical Examples of Manufacturing Continuous Improvement

Illustration of 5 practical examples of manufacturing continuous improvement

A plan is essential. Here are five examples of things you can instigate in your organization to start a pattern of continuous improvement.

1. Assessment + goal setting

  • Conduct an in-depth assessment: Begin by thoroughly evaluating your current manufacturing processes. Identify bottlenecks, inefficiencies, and areas for improvement. Use all the tools at your disposal. For example, use data if working with Six Sigma or get employee feedback, as highlighted by Kaizen and Lean methodologies. 
  • Set SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. SMART goals will help you address what your assessment found. Clearly define what success looks like for your organization. Then, create goals based on that measure. Small, achievable goals will eventually lead to more significant results. 

2. Engage lean principals

  • Embrace the 5S methodology: A central element of Lean Improvement is implementing the 5S’s. Sort, Set in Order, Shine, Standardize, and Sustain. 

Sort – separating necessary materials and tools from unnecessary ones

Set in order – Organise what remains so it’s easy to use and accessible

Shine – Start a campaign to clean up the work environment

Standardize – Regulate the first 3 S’s – perform them daily.

Sustain – Bring this practice into your company culture and mindset.

  • Introduce Kanban systems: Toyota, the brains behind Lean principles, also developed Kanban. It’s a board that visualizes your ongoing work so everyone can see progress from start to finish. It minimizes waste and ensures smooth material flow. It also establishes if someone is close to being overworked. Real-time displays like this can ensure the workflow is managed before problems arise.

3. Regular performance monitoring

  • Use KPIs: Define key performance indicators relevant to your objectives. These will give you great insights into your performance. They will also highlight areas that need attention. 
  • Install real-time monitoring systems/OEE software: Integrating OEE software into your operations will help in many areas. 

Data-driven insights ensure issues get addressed as soon as they arise. 

The software is a digital Kanban board visualizing all current work and processes.

Software that improves your OEE will also enhance other KPIs. For example, throughput, running cost per hour, and productivity can also increase. 

Predictive analytics can anticipate potential issues before they happen. Preventing problems before they start leads to less downtime in the future.

Evocon's shift view screen
Evocon’s Shift View screen

4. Iterative refinement

  • Encourage employee involvement: Foster a culture where employees actively contribute ideas for process improvement. Regular feedback loops are vital in sustaining incremental changes. This communication is crucial for those involved in day-to-day operations.
  • Conduct periodic reviews: Kaizen, Lean, and Sigma Six all emphasize the importance of regular reviews. Analyze successes and challenges. Seek insights into what worked well and areas that may need further refinement. A natural rhythm of learning and improvement will soon set in. 

5. Optimize the work environment

  • Conduct a layout analysis: Assess the current layout of your manufacturing facility. Identify potential bottlenecks, inefficient workflows, or unnecessary movements. Tools like Value Stream Mapping help visualize the whole production process. They also uncover opportunities for improvement.
  • Focus on ergonomics and safety: Ensure the environment is essential for productive work. Lighting, comfort, and even well-planned interior design can increase productivity. Safety is also paramount. Team members feel more confident completing their tasks with a secure mindset.

A Real-World Example of Manufacturing Process Improvement

A paper from the International Journal of Production Research shows that continuous improvement techniques can be very effective even in a small company. 

In this case study, Company A reduced their processing times while at the same time improving the quality of their products after lean implementation.”

Chen, Li & Shady (2010)

The company used Kaizen/Lean techniques to identify two considerable bottlenecks that hindered their productivity. These also led to significant increases in waste. Implementing the 5-Whys technique (Jones & Womack), the team was able to get to the root cause of the issues. A cross-functional team overcame the hurdles using continuous improvement techniques and increased their company’s competitiveness. 

The 5-whys technique

In the same way that young children make sense of the world, this technique suggests asking “why” questions until you find the root cause. Starting with your problem, ask why it is happening. Write the answer on a piece of paper. If the answer solves the problem, you’ve finished. It’s more likely, however, that the answer didn’t solve it. In that case, ask why again to the new problem. 

By continuing to ask why, you break the problem down into smaller, more straightforward steps until you discover the root cause. Jones & Womack call it the 5 Whys Analysis, as you usually get your answer in 5 steps. Sometimes, it requires more, and sometimes less. 

Create the Right Environment for Manufacturing Improvements

Continuous improvement in manufacturing thrives in an environment that nurtures collaboration, innovation, and a commitment to excellence. Teams need to feel empowered and able to make suggestions. For that to happen, we must consider the workplace’s physical and cultural side. 

Case study: A transformation journey at Bohn de Mexico

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  • Employee feedback: A culture of open communication is vital when pursuing continuous improvement in manufacturing. The workforce at the heart of your operations will all have valuable concerns, insights, and ideas. After all, they’re encountering these things every day. The feeling of having their voices heard is invaluable. This inclusive approach boosts morale and fosters a sense of ownership among employees. It aligns their goals with the broader objectives of manufacturing improvements.
  • Celebrate achievements: By spotlighting accomplishments, organizations inspire a sense of pride and motivation among employees. Recognizing and celebrating achievements, even the small ones, embodies what continuous improvement is. The small, incremental changes are essential to larger-scale improvements.
  • Engage the team: This venture is a collective effort. Continuous improvement requires commitment from everyone involved. Regular meetings, brainstorming sessions, and cross-functional teams give everyone a voice. Diverse perspectives shine a light on areas that may have been neglected. Everyone can feel invested in the success of the changes around them. 
  • Training and skill development: The foundation of continuous improvement rests on the skills and abilities of the workforce—target specific training in line with your organization’s goals. Appropriate training ensures you can equip teams with all the necessary knowledge they need. Skilled workers understand their tools, making them more likely to notice defects or issues. Positive change grows organically as a skilled workforce naturally implements the changes they need to be fully productive. 

Achieving Excellence with a Continuous Improvement Plan in Manufacturing

This exploration uncovered methodologies, strategies, and practical examples ready to apply. They’re a compass for staying competitive and innovative in today’s dynamic landscape. By embracing a culture of perpetual enhancement, you can achieve greater efficiency, reduce waste, and optimize more resources. In the exploration of continuous improvement within manufacturing, the contribution of technology is more significant than ever. OEE (Overall Equipment Efficiency) software is a valuable tool offering powerful insights.

OEE software is more than a way to streamline operations. It also becomes a critical element in driving continuous improvement in manufacturing. It plays a central role in facilitating informed decision-making. The software uses real-time insights, automated data collection, and predictive analytics to make this happen. Whether it provides the in-depth data needed by Six Sigma or a digital Kanban board for Lean, It’s a pivotal ally to whatever methodology you choose.

If you want to explore how Evocon can assist your manufacturing in continuous improvement, sign up for a free trial or talk to one of our experts.

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