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Setting Up a Step-By-Step Process Improvement Plan In Your Factory

August 6, 2020

 by Renaud Anjoran

Do you want a process improvement plan for your factory to improve quality, reduce cost, and deliver on time? You might also be wondering, ‘how do I go about implementing it?’'

We’re going to be breaking down a step-by-step guide to help you implement an effective process improvement plan at your facility. There are several approaches to process improvement – with the most popular ones based on the Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) cycle and the Define-Measure-Analyze-Improve-Control (DMAIC) sequence.

In this article, we’ll explain how to use a framework we like to use that is derived from Toyota’s practical problem-solving process, which contains 14 underlying principles summarized into these four points:
  1. Maintain a long-term philosophy.
  2. Having the proper process will help produce the right results.
  3. Add value to your organization by developing people.
  4. Continuously solve root problems to drive both organizational learning and operational improvement.

But first, let's look at how we define process improvement.

What Is Process Improvement?

A process improvement plan is a proactive, well-documented technique to find the inefficient processes within your existing operations. Existing business processes are identified, analyzed, and then improved. Simply put, it entails examining your organization and determining how you might improve things.

An effective way of implementing it is by following a process improvement plan.

5 Process Improvement Steps for Your Factory

1. Clarify Your Goals

We have seen many factory owners order an impressive piece of machinery, only to realize that it doesn’t serve its purpose. Sometimes, they may pay very little for overtime and lose operators when their goal is to increase capacity.

The most common goals you can set for your factory are:

2. Collect and Analyze Data

factory engineer analyzing maintenance records

Do you choose priorities based on 'gut feeling'? A lot of people do. While it might be fine in some cases, relying on gut feeling alone increases the risk of focusing on the wrong things. For example:
  • You want to increase capacity. You think you need to improve the equipment uptime. But, in reality, what is constraining your capacity are your assembly, testing, and packing activities.
  • You want to improve quality. You think adding a few inspectors will do the trick. But 70% of the defects on your finished products come from a process after which no re-work is possible (the parts have to be scrapped). Your process improvement plan should target that process.
So what should you do to ensure you make the right decisions?

Watch our free webinar recording "How Statistical Process Control Can Help a Factory Reach Six Sigma Level"

Look At Accurate Data for Quality Improvement Planning

It is essential to look at actual data about your factory performance before deciding. But before you can do that, you will need to create a data collection process. The most common sources of data in a factory are:
  • Quality inspection reports (including those from your incoming QC team, and so on);
  • Corrective action plans, or 8Ds, requested from customers;
  • Equipment stoppage records;
  • Productivity data (i.e. number of labor hours per unit);
  • Utility consumption data;
  • Suggestions for re-engineering, for example, from a consulting firm like CMC;
  • Shipping records (estimated ETD vs real ETD);
  • Past project management records (plan vs real, for instance, in Microsoft Project);
  • Safety incident records.
With so many sources, it’s easy to become inundated with data, so you must pick which data you need to analyze the situation appropriately. Is there one big problem preventing you from reaching your goal? Or is it 2 or 3 more minor problems? Is it wiser to tackle one problem at a time?

3. Get Down to The Root Cause of The Main Issues

Once you have your finger on an issue, go down to its root causes. We often see pseudo-root causes such as “operator made a mistake,” which call for pseudo-solutions such as “retrain the operators”. Don’t fall into that trap.

You can’t build a process improvement plan without digging deeper into what caused the mistake in the first place. Is it related to the number of hours the operators are working? The tools they have at their disposal? Any issues within the production process?

Again, let’s look at an example:

Process Improvement Plan Example: Do You Have Many Rejects in Production?

Cause #1: some suppliers ship bad products.
Cause #2: some parts pass the incoming inspection but should be rejected.

Let’s get down to the root of cause #1. Some suppliers ship bad products because they can’t and won’t meet the tolerances. The supplier's selection process does not include verifying their capabilities and does not ask them to commit to respecting certain tolerances.

4. The Process Improvement Manager Needs to Set Clear Goals

engineers discussing in front of whiteboard

Before you write a plan, you need to know how far and fast you want to go. Let’s take a look at an example:
  • If you want to increase productivity by 6% every year, you can focus on minor changes in the layout and the tools. You can also train the local leaders to work in a certain way, improve the internal logistics system, and you will have time to see how your plan works and therefore iterate as needed.
  • If you want to increase productivity by 40% in 6 months, you probably can’t act at the margin (around the existing processes). You will need to rethink the way operations are planned and executed from the ground up, and you may need to redesign the product. The engineering effort and the capital expense necessary to reach that target will probably be much higher.

5. Plan for Counter-Measures

Many people tend to skip the other process improvement steps and go directly to this one. By now, you should understand why it is a mistake:
  • The plan should address the major root causes. Otherwise, the improvement won't move the needle and won't 'stick' in the long run.
  • You need to involve people. Let them agree on the root causes, and then the counter-measures will often be logical. Hopefully, you have people’s buy-in, and there will be less resistance.
  • You need improvement targets to know how fast and how far you need to go.
Once you have a plan, it needs to be implemented. Regular updates are necessary and give way to course corrections. ‘Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable,’ the saying goes. Don’t become too attached to a specific plan. Let it evolve naturally, and revisit your goals regularly!

Do you have any questions about setting up a process improvement plan in your factory?
Please leave a comment below. We'd love to hear from you!


Watch our free webinar recording "How Statistical Process Control Can Help a Factory Reach Six Sigma Level"

Topics: Quality, Process Improvement

Renaud Anjoran

Renaud Anjoran

15 years experience in China.
Partner, China Manufacturing Consultants.
Worked with hundreds of factories in China.
Certifications: ASQ CQE & CRE; ISO 9001 & 14001 lead auditor.
Author of well-read blog, Quality Inspection Tips.

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