Understanding the ABCs of Improvement
It was at an RIT symposium in the 1990s that I first heard Douglas Engelbart speak about the three types of work activities that occur in a business. Engelbart, who invented the computer mouse, was referring to ways of raising the rate of innovation through technological advancement. His ideas have stayed with me for more than 30 years.
During assessments of printing companies seeking feedback on the state of quality in their businesses, I’ve learned there are three kinds of work activities that can be observed. Following Engelbart’s approach, think of them as A, B, and C work. “A” work is the work done every day by every employee to produce goods and services that meet the needs of the customer. These “A” work activities include, among others, sales, purchasing, order entry, prepress work, presswork, finishing, shipping, and invoicing. In other words, it’s the value stream (or streams) that exist in each and every printing company. “A” work is the primary work of the business and we want it to be done right the first time, every time.
“B” work, on the other hand, is the work done to improve the performance of the “A” work. “B” work includes activities such as kaizen events, employee improvement ideas and implementation, and project-based process improvement. It includes the application of new IT and new production technologies that produce reductions in lead time, greater flexibility, and less waste while creating greater customer value. The addition of new technologies can lead to real gains in value stream performance, but they are temporary, as competing printing companies can acquire the same equipment. Alternatively, employees performing “B” work activities (5S, SMED, Kata, standard work, etc.) continually accumulate small improvements that are captured and retained. The resulting greater rate of improvement in “A” work becomes the unique property of the company and is not easily duplicated by competitors.
The investment made in “B” work activities is intended to be recaptured through improved productivity in “A” work activities. If “B” work activities are effective, the rate of return for dollars invested will be higher than for the dollars invested in “A” work activity. The greater the rate of improvement achieved, the greater the return on dollars invested in “B” work.
Many of the companies I visit have some type of structure for conducting “B” work, mostly related to problem solving with appropriate corrective actions and project-based process improvement. The challenge is that in many printing companies, there is a division of attention (and often responsibility) between the part of the company concerned with “A” work activities and the part of the company concerned with the improvement “B” work activities. Think production manager and process improvement manager. This division creates a competition for the time and attention of the people in the gemba performing “A” work activities. The daily pressures to perform “A” work to get the product out the door can severely limit the time and attention available for “B” work. Consequently, the rate of improvement in “A” work activities often stays unacceptably low.
We need to think about how to accelerate our rate of improvement. We can think of this as “C” work, activities focused on achieving a greater rate of improvement in “B” activities which are again multiplied in returns in productivity in the company’s primary work activities. Some examples of “C” work might include managers coaching employees in structured process improvement and problem solving, or everyone making many small improvements that are captured in standard work and improved upon again and again. “C” work is about getting better at getting better.
Continual improvement in “A” work is what is desired, but the seeds of that improvement lie in the “B” and “C” work that is practiced in your company. How many “B” activities are currently in place in your company? What is your rate of improvement? What are you doing in the way of “C” activities to accelerate your rate of improvement?
2020 Continuous Improvement Conference
The 2020 Continuous Improvement Conference (April 5-8 in Columbus, Ohio) is the only industry event focused on helping printing and converting companies achieve operational excellence and Lean leadership. Attendees directly link reduced costs, lowered waste, and increased profit margins to ideas gained from conference presentations and networking. The conference is presented by PIA and SGIA, with association support from FPA, FTA, and TLMI. To learn more about the event, visit ci.printing.org. Click here to register to attend.
John is owner and principal of Compton & Associates, a consulting company dedicated to improving the people, processes, and profits of its clients. He is professor emeritus of the Rochester Institute of Technology, where he taught quality systems and process improvement while serving as director of the Center for Quality and Productivity in the Graphic Arts. Most recently, he served as vice president of quality and training at Vertis Communications and prior to that, he served as vice president of quality and organizational development at Fort Dearborn Company. John has authored and co-authored several books dealing with quality and productivity in the printing and imaging industry. He is a Master Lean/Six Sigma Black Belt and a senior member of the American Society for Quality. John has served as a consultant to the Continuous Improvement Conference since 2010.