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Continuous Improvement Shores up the Bottom Line

Medical Device & Diagnostic Industry Magazine
MDDI Article Index

An MD&DI  February 1998 Column


Kaizen's continuous improvement process views even a change that reduces manufacturing time by as little as half a second as a valuable contribution to a company's overall efforts.

It seems every year another management philosophy that will shorten product development or manufacturing time, enhance employee productivity, or contribute in some other way to fortifying a business's bottom line comes into fashion. Americans seem to approach work challenges looking for fast, dramatic results. The resurgence of reengineering—with its accompanying replacement of existing processes with entirely updated, seemingly more practical ones—demonstrates a desire for the huge reorganization that will deliver bigger, better whatever.

In contrast, the Japanese—whose management prowess has resulted in total quality management and statistical process control as well as an incredibly efficient and technologically advanced workforce—focus on processes and their individual elements. Improvements that cut manufacturing time by as little as half a second are viewed to be as valuable as those that save larger blocks of time.

In this month's Bottom Line, we revisit Japan's kaizen philosophy, which changes processes in a sustained series of incremental adjustments. Kaizen came to America in the 1980s at Toyota plants and has since expanded into other manufacturing operations, with dramatic results. Medical device companies have reaped rewards as well as awards. Both Critikon (Southington, CT) in 1994 and Perfecseal (Philadelphia) in 1997 have won the prestigious Shingo Prize for Excellence in Manufacturing, which recognizes companies in the United States, Mexico, and Canada that excel in productivity and process improvement, quality enhancement, and customer satisfaction. Critikon's use of kaizen generated a 50% jump in productivity, as measured by the units made per employee, and cut cycle time by 60% and material waste by 53%.

After adopting kaizen, Perfecseal saw its lead time fall by three-quarters. Further, on-time and complete shipments, which had only occurred 38% of the time, jumped to 95%. Productivity improved 50%, and setup time was cut by half.

As impressive as these numbers are, it's even more noteworthy that the steps that lead to them can be taken relatively quickly. Kaizen projects usually range from two to five days; larger goals are slated for completion in about 30. Further, all employees are deemed valuable contributors to problem solving. In addition to the morale boost this involvement produces, management benefits by having the shop floor point of view presented, because with kaizen, changes aren't sparked by a team brooding over a conference table. Instead, team members try new techniques on the floor until they find the best solution.

By adopting the kaizen philosophy and thus empowering employees, helping them upgrade their skills, and looking at all the small elements of existing systems in the process of making more-sweeping changes, organizations can expect to see gains in quality, cost, delivery time, safety, morale, and, ultimately, competitive position.

Tell me about the impact kaizen and other management philosophies have had on your company's bottom line. I'd like to hear from you!

Stacey L. Bell

Copyright ©1998 Medical Device & Diagnostic Industry
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