I interviewed Martin Keyser who discussed Constant Improvement.
It’s great to speak with you again, Marty. We’ve done an interview the past, and I’m happy to speak with you again today about the topic of constant improvement. Can you start by providing a brief background of yourself?
I’ve been a purchasing agent for a good amount of years. I was probably one of the first group of people to get a CPM way back in the ’70s, which stands for certified purchasing manager, for those people who don’t know. I have worked not only in purchasing, but also in sale, so I have been on both sides of the desk, if you will. I’ve worked in manufacturing companies, and that’s where I was introduced to lean management, which includes constant improvement, and I’m a big fan of constant improvement.
And can you start by providing a definition of what constant improvement is?
My definition is making a product or procedure better, cheaper, faster, or easier.
Great, that’s a good definition. Do you have any examples?
Yes, I do. I have an example of, say, making a procedure easier. When I was at one company that imported all of their products from China, we would receive invoices from the freight forwarder that would not only include the cost of the merchandise, but also the cost of everything it took to bring it in to America, such as duties and fees. What the accounting department would do was sort all these costs into three categories, and then break it down to the cost in each one of these categories per case. The person who was doing this had done it for years manually, using a calculator. What I felt was ridiculous about it was because the calculator would take something out to 12 decimal points; so would she. What I did when she asked me to do this for her was, inside of five minutes, I created an Excel spreadsheet and, using some formulas, pretty much had the spreadsheet do all the work for me. By just plugging in total cost and also the total amount of cases, the computer did all the work, and the job was done almost before it started.
Another example was, I worked at a company that had location codes in the computer of all the merchandise in bins on shelves. The problem was that every time they did inventory, if any one of those bins moved on the shelf either because of eliminating a bin or adding a bin to the shelf, it changed all the location codes of anything that got moved on the shelf. That necessitated changing all the location codes in the computer. Well, I suspected that was way too much information that was needed for the fellow who was pulling the parts to know where the part was. It just simply wasn’t necessary to have all that information. After testing out my theory by having him pull parts with the complete code and pull parts without the bin part of the code, we found that it took no longer to do it the one way than the other way. What that allowed us to do was eliminate where the bin was on the shelf, which also eliminated the need to change that location in the computer, which saved about 160 man hours a year.
An example of a product constant-improved—what I defined as product is either an individual part or a sub-assembly or an assembly, which is to say two parts being put together makes it a subassembly, and when you make it even bigger, it becomes an assembly. I’m just going over this so everybody knows what I’m talking about. In the case of a part, the best example I can give you is a particular fastener, a particular screw had two drives on it, which is to say how you screw it on to the part.
Either one of those two drives made the screw a standard, but when you put both of those drives together on the screw, it made it a special. In looking into this, I found that either way, the standard screw would be 2 cents each, whereas the special screw was 22 cents each, so that was a big difference, especially since we’re putting something like 30 screws into each product. What I did was went to engineering and asked their permission if we could eliminate one of the drives, which they okayed. That’s an important thing, by the way. When you do not have the authority to change something, you need to know that and get permission from the person who does have the authority, I was allowed to do that, to change the part and order the standards instead of the special, and we save about $25 thousand a year.
One other thing I want to mention is that when you do something like that, call the supplier and find out if he has any of these things on the shelf. If he does, you owe it to him to take those parts off the shelf before you start changing; it’s just an ethical thing to do. Now, in the case of the subassembly or assembly, an example I have of this, and I’ll try and make this as clear as I can, there was a round, metal shaft that went into a metal box. T
he shaft was knurled and, generally—what knurling is is like lines or a diamond shape on the product, much like you would see on the edges of a dime, and it just makes it easier for a person to hold on it. When I first saw that, I couldn’t help wondering why you would need to knurl a product that went inside a sealed box. As it turned out, the people who were assembling this needed to have the rod knurled in order to be able to hold on to it while they were fastening it into the box. This was a very time-consuming, labor-intensive procedure. The box was really small, and it was just difficult for them to do it.
They didn’t complain; they just did their job. What I did, though, suspecting that this could be made faster, cheaper, easier, better, I asked the manufacturer if, instead of knurling it, could he put two flaps on each side of the rod, which made it look more like a screwdriver tip, if you could imagine that. Then what they also did for me was slotted the inside of the box, and the screwdriver tip would fit into the box, making the rod impossible to turn. It just eliminated the need for the girls who were assembling this to hold on to it and not only made it easier for them to do their job, which sped up their productivity, but we also saved money because putting a slot on this rod was cheaper than putting knurls on it. Those are my examples.
Are there any downsides to constant improvement?
I’m glad you mentioned that. There are. The first thing you have to do is leave your ego at the door. When you are working on a product, trying to make it better, and you present this to the powers that be and then somebody else thinks of an even better way of making this product, taking your idea and taking it one step ahead, you have to have enough self-control to keep your mouth shut and let your wonderful idea be improved even further by somebody else. Also, you have to have the honesty to admit that this new version, this new idea actually was even better than your idea was.
Another downside is that you have to be very, very careful that you don’t step on people’s toes while you are putting forth your ideas or even putting your ideas into effect. What I did was embarrass my boss at a company. When he was away I was in a production meeting, and I noticed that the first two weeks of the month, we had produced $500,000 worth of merchandise. Up to that point in time, everybody thought it was not possible to do any better than a $700,000 month.
When I pointed out to the people in my production group that all we needed to do was double the first two weeks of production, to do it again and we would have a $1 million month, they were kind of amazed at that. Just for fun, I challenged the lady who was supervisor of the production department, and I told her that if her people met that goal, I would buy everybody lunch. Well, here I was, acting like the boss and I shouldn’t have.That was number one.
Number two: Here we are producing a $1 million month when the boss was away, so what does that make the boss look like? I think what I did was, I embarrassed him because here he was at a corporate meeting, and it must have raised some eyebrows when we did a $1 million month. And then by meeting the goal and then challenging us to increase the goal, soon a $2 million month was average, whereas before everybody thought a $700,000 month was good.
This all happened when the boss was away, so this must’ve been an embarrassment for the boss. I should have done it with the boss’s permission, but I got ahead of myself.
The third thing I would say is: Know what corporate culture you’re in. If you’re in a corporate culture where I would call a military-type culture where the orders only come from the top, if you’re toward the bottom or even the middle of the organization and you start making suggestions, if the boss is threatened by you, soon you’re not going to be there anymore. For example, in a military environment, when the general says “Charge,” he expects everybody to charge. He isn’t interested in meetings or alternatives or better ideas; you just have to do what you’re told. Know whether or not the company really does accept ideas from the bottom and if not, just lip service before you start doing it, or you may find yourself out of a job.
Thanks, Marty, for sharing today on this topic.
Thank you very much for inviting me.
About Martin Keyser
Practicing Constant Improvement Constantly