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Continuous Improvement: Real Improvement Or Mediocrity?

Incremental improvements are more or less feel good measures that say to management “there was a problem and we did this to solve it.” In reality, most continuous improvements have come from technology advancements, not from employee performance advancements. Has the continuous improvement mentality caused manufacturing to settle for mediocrity?

Manufacturing organizations have been bombarded with initiatives that promise continuous improvement and yet after twenty plus years of initiative after initiative, the reality has at best been incremental improvements.

It seems when problems appear the path to solution is to replace parts and get the equipment back into production. Others may take some time to use the '5 why' or 'fish bone' problem solving process to obtain a solution. Either way, it is tagged as continuous improvement and has really not delivered the kinds of improvements that make a difference on the bottom line. In many cases, the problems are not even solved because they reappear at at later date.

Incremental improvements are more or less feel good measures that say to management “see, there was a problem and we did this to solve it. We have complied and improved the process.” In reality, most continuous improvements have come from technology advancements and not from employee performance advancements.

Has the continuous improvement mentality caused manufacturing to settle for mediocrity? Incremental improvements are for those who merely want to get by and not for those who want to make a difference.

To make a difference, one must change the attitude of organizations from incremental improvements to quantum leaps forward, from technology advancements to human performance advancements and from problem solution to problem elimination. Technology will continue to advance and people will continue to solve problems. When human performance increases together with technology and problem elimination, quantum leaps forward will result.

The only way to attain quantum leaps forward and avoid mediocrity is through a holistic approach to reliability. The reliability approach must not be a maintenance function, it must be a corporate initiative that encompasses all sites and all departments. It must use Proaction, Focus, and Priority as the tools to gain Equipment, Process, and Human reliability.

Without proaction, focus, and priority organizations will continue to be directed by reactive events rather than creating their own planned paths to meeting organizational goals.


Proaction is any improvement, foresight, and/or execution activities that will prevent equipment, process, or human failure or lessen the consequence of failure. Determine:

  • Mechanical Proaction
  • Process Proaction
  • Human Proaction


Focus is the directing of human energy and capability to the significant few issues and opportunities that result in quantum benefits. Some of the techniques for establishing reliability focus are:

  • Managerial Introspection

This is a way of focusing that requires the management team to examine the health of the organization by first establishing a rallying vision of the future along with the values they want the organization to represent. This is followed by developing a focused plan for moving the organization forward. If the organization is found to be unhealthy, as is observed in many plant organizations, then the result is a twofold plan, one to restore health and one to move forward.

  • Modified Failure Modes and Effects Analysis

Instead of concentrating personnel solely on the failures that are perceived as being of interest to senior management, or the most dramatic failure of the day, concentrate trained resources on those failures that are most important to achieving and exceeding the financial targets. To do this, a very effective technique, developed in the aerospace industry, has been simplified and made user friendly making it applicable to the continuous process industry. The result is a method that captures vital information held by people in the field that is usually not found in our data systems.

Consequently, a modified version of Failure Modes and Effects Analysis called Opportunity Analysis uses field resources to develop the information that identifies which failures represent 80 percent of facility losses. The technique is powerful and very capable of identifying the significant few failures that should be subjected to Root Cause Analysis.

  • Decisions by Pairs

In most facilities, orders for performing work come from the leadership. In most organizations, the culture is that objections to such orders are not usually tolerated. Since cultures are comprised of paradigms, they have the effect of promoting mediocrity. They also represent a dilemma for employees.... do I challenge job assignments or do I continue to work on the trivial many? Decision by pairs is one technique that provides a vehicle to challenge work assignments in a non-personal way. It allows a list of jobs that need attention to be prioritized by comparing each job with each of the other jobs to be done and then sorting the list according to how many times a particular job is selected.

  • Priority Matrix

Priority Matrix is a technique that is two dimensional. This means instead of comparing the importance of one job with the importance of other jobs, one can sort on the basis of the impact of a job as well as the ease of achieving the job.

When subordinates are allowed to question priorities management, it allows limits to be challenged and opening up their manufacturing sites to some very real progress.


Priority exists when senior management clearly delineates an institution's direction and assigns responsibilities. There is one more factor management must also put in place, which is the support mechanisms to facilitate the work of area managers. In this way they dramatically demonstrate to the population involved that they sanction the direction area managers are pursuing. In other words, to use a cliché‚ of today, they will be "walking their talk."

When Proaction, Focus, and Priority are established, then execution of a plan and training can take place.

Manufacturing plants need to establish criteria of performance, not of behavior, and devise strategies to obtain the criteria. The criteria has to be dynamic because management will reasonably continue to ask for the next plateau of excellence. The way people perform, to each level of criteria, will be a measure of their competence.

"Reliability is the job of a central core group, not the job of everyone" is a common refrain. If people do not know how they can participate in an activity, it is reasonable for them to assume it is some other person's job. This is both an educational and a management system matter.

"Management really wants people that can react and get the facility back on the line". Reaction is too often rewarded, creating a sense of fulfillment for this type of activity. This, of course, perpetuates mediocrity because it discourages proaction and continuous improvement. All that is needed is to change what people get rewarded for.

The Reliability Approach works. It is the infrastructure that supports organizational health, quality, safety, and environmental integrity. Achieving the challenge of setting the Reliability Approach in place will require a number of conditioned paradigms to change. This will take boldness and courage.

The bottom line rewards far outweigh the effort.

About the Author:

Mark Latino is President of Reliability Center, Inc. (RCI). Mark came to RCI after 19 years in corporate America. During those years a wealth of reliability, maintenance, and manufacturing experience was acquired. He worked for Weyerhaeuser Corporation in a production role during the early stages of his career. He was an active part of Allied Chemical Corporation’s (Now Honeywell) Reliability Strive for Excellence initiative started in the 70’s to define, understand, document, and live the Reliability Culture until he left in 1986. Mark spent 10 years with Philip Morris primarily in a production capacity that later ended in a reliability engineering role. Mark is a graduate of Old Dominion University and holds a BS Degree in Business Management that focused on Production & Operations Management.