Abbott: Building a Stable Foundation for Continuous Improvement

April 6, 2011
Abbott's Continuous Improvement Manager shares best practices on how to prepare an organization for Lean and Six Sigma projects.

At Interphex 2011 in New York, Michael Schickler, Continuous Improvement Manager at Abbott’s main Lake County, Illinois site, shared best practices. His primary focus was the critical role of Standard Work as the foundation for continuous improvement.

The Lake County site has 350 employees and handles roughly 60 products, and is the primary packaging site for U.S. operations. Continuous improvement is a core competency for the entire site, Schickler said. The techniques used are not technology-specific and can be adapted worldwide. As such, all of Abbott’s sites have experience with continuous improvement and are fairly autonomous, he noted, but rely upon common tools.

“Continuous improvement is a journey,” he said. “You’re never really done, but you’ll need some tools, a map, and some sort of destination. Beware of too many tools, applied haphazardly”—what some refer to as the kamikaze kaizen approach. There are “pencil and paper” techniques that are scalable, do not require significant capital investment, and can improve any organization.

Before major Lean and Six Sigma work can begin for detailed problem resolution, he said, a site must establish stable business processes. A key to this is business process mapping (BPM). Mapping, he said, helps to identify clear performance indicators, and to allow the manufacturer to see the flow of information, identify gaps, eliminate redundancy, create transparency, and generate consistency.

Schickler then shared some typical BPM matrices that Abbott might use. They are simple grids: stages (Forecast, Plan, Execute, and Report) horizontally across the top, and time frames (Yearly, Monthly, Weekly, Daily) vertically beneath. “In each of the cells, you layer in the meetings, decisions, and learnings as they unfold,” he said, next showing a completed model. “You notice the complexity—it’s not as clean as you would hope, but the interconnection between all the elements becomes apparent.” The matrix, he said, provides a framework for all of the decisionmakers in the plant to rely upon, he said.

Those decisionmakers tweak and develop the matrix in monthly performance review meetings. “Each of the meetings has clear attributes to define,” he said. “Everyone knows why they’re meeting and what they need to accomplish in each meeting.”

Standard Work for Managers
Schickler then moved on to the concept of Standard Work, a “formally defined and documented process to produce at a specified pace.” Examples include company procedures and checklists, but it’s “not just a compliance thing.”

Why is Standard Work important? It helps to shore up delivery schedules, customer service levels, capacity planning, and labor utilization, he said. These are “symptoms of a healthy environment” required to undertake more significant Lean and Six Sigma projects.

The role of the Master Production Scheduler is critical, said Schickler. This person must:
•    integrate between Marketing, Distribution, and Production
•    regulate supply and demand
•    maintain optimal production schedules
•    manage change

“The true success of an MPS is how they manage change,” he said.

Frozen, Firm, Fluid
Schickler then addressed how the MPS and facility gauge the “cost of change,” which is dependent upon how far into the future a given change is expected. Abbott categorizes change into three periods:

Frozen: This period is close to the present. Work orders have been completed and production is underway. “Change in this environment is costly, and it should be an emergency, cleared and approved through the highest levels of the organization,” Schickler said.

Firm: The time before production, when, for example, orders are planned but materials are not yet on site. “In this phase, the MPS is the key negotiator of change,” he said, “brokering deals among customers to meet everyone’s needs.” The MPS is generally empowered to approve and lead change in this period.

Fluid: Further out, as orders are being planned and production is being forecast, change is fluid. At this point, there can be dramatic, significant change with minimal impact. The MPS, too, can lead change here.

The key takeaway, said Schickler: “Routine things happen routinely,” and this lays the foundation for continuous improvement. If Standard Work is embraced and mastered, “that allows more resources to respond to upset or abnormal demand.” And once a stable environment is achieved, there are time and resources for continuous improvement projects as well.

About the Author

Paul Thomas | Senior Editor