Here at Yambla, we firmly believe that continuous improvement is the foundation for innovation to occur, and that it drives the development of new, groundbreaking solutions.
By continuously analyzing and improving existing products, processes or systems, organizations can identify areas for change that could lead to new, more efficient ways of working, better quality and increased customer satisfaction. By continuously applying smaller improvements (upgrades) the potential innovation gap diminishes. Additionally, the process of continuous improvement can foster a culture of innovation, encouraging employees to think creatively and come up with new ideas. During vital moments, you will have a critical mass of open-minded, forward-thinking people, allowing you to make a significant impact. That is how continuous improvement provides a foundation for innovation to occur and can drive the development of new, groundbreaking solutions.
Today, we would like to highlight the inspiring story of improvement through continuous, bottom-up efforts by one of our customers.
Over the past 2 years, we’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with Agrati Group on scaling their bottom-up Improvement approach through implementation and rollout of the Yambla Platform.
Agrati Group is a worldwide leader in fastening solutions. With over 8 billion annual pieces produced used in more than 40 million cars all over the world, it is likely that you yourself are being surrounded by one of their products. In order to operate and keep achieving better results in a more challenging world they have implemented a lean improvement approach. Let’s give you a factory tour inside the head of Matteo Pozzoli, Lean Manufacturing Manager for Agrati Italy, and have a look at the nuts and bolts of Agrati Group’s Lean Improvement Process.
In this blog post, we shed some light on Agrati Group’s bottom-up Improvement approach, and how implementation of the platform has helped them scale the approach.
The Driving Force
The driving force behind Agrati Group’s Collaborative approach is Matteo Pozzoli’s team. “This means that I – together with my team – am responsible for the improvement activities for the plants in Italy – which include 4 production plants and 2 logistical plants. This responsibility goes beyond production improvements and involves looking for ways to do things better from a supply chain and culture point of view”, explains Matteo.
According to Matteo, involving all individuals in the company is essential to discover significant progress. Therefore, he introduced an initiative a few years ago that enables people to share their improvement ideas.
Implementing Collaborative Improvement
Matteo and I have had many chats before and to me it was clear that he has always been a strong believer of this approach. Matteo, could you provide further insight into your perspective on Collaborative Improvements and why you believe it is an effective approach for gathering ideas for improvement?
“With a Collaborative Improvement approach, knowledge sharing and the capturing of improvements can occur concurrently. The approach reveals the ongoing efforts in various directions. It enables the company to acknowledge and appreciate the contributions made by employees, while employees also get to observe the implementation of ideas by the company. This feedback mechanism promotes a shared understanding that some efforts may require more work behind the scenes and keeps expectations aligned across different levels of the organization. Additionally, the approach accommodates diverse perspectives, which fosters engagement and involvement.”
Supported by an Idea Management Platform
Matteo mentions that the idea collection came to a point where the number of ideas went beyond manageable through the classical means of a spreadsheet. “You see, a spreadsheet is very good tool to get started in the short term, but it brings very specific challenges, especially in terms of ownership and accountability. We moved from 50 to 300 annual ideas and that is why we decided we needed a more ‘intelligent’ tool. “
“The biggest benefit of an Idea Management platform – such as the Yambla platform – is that it brings transparency. It allows everybody to see which ideas are already out there, what the company is currently doing with those ideas and what needs to be done. The transparency ensures that the ideas are evaluated in a timely manner – accountability through visibility, while the social feed ensures that people want to be involved, that they are kept in the loop. On top of that, seeing suggestions enables others to think how they can apply these things themselves – it helps them to think outside of the box. They can easily spot solutions that might also be applied to their job.”
“Another key advantage is that it really supports us in giving a clear path for each idea. It brings clarity on the current situation, what needs to be done next and who needs to do something. It allows us to keep track of every idea and store all the information in one place. So, actually this is also a consequence of the transparency this kind of platform offers.”
The biggest benefit of an idea management platform is the transparency it brings. It fosters collaboration, accountability and a clear path for every idea.
“One that cannot be underestimated is that it gives people a place where they can say what they think in an easy and constructive way. Even when we would receive 1000 ideas and many would be rejected, I am convinced that this is what needs to happen to find that one idea that pays for all the rest. We’d rather receive an abundance of unqualified ideas than not receive any ideas at all. Because that is where the danger of progress lies, when people stop talking. “
A tool is an enabler, not a solution
Obviously, we would be thrilled to hear that a tool is **THE** magic element to make a collaborative, bottom-up improvement initiative successful 😇 – but it is only one element in a bigger whole. It takes preparation, a good process, clear communication and the necessary ownership to ensure that your collaborative improvement community remains invigorated. So, Matteo, what do you do that quality ideas keep coming and are implemented? Do you have a special approach?
“The special thing is that we are not treating the improvement process in a special way. First, to make this work, finding improvements needs to be part of your daily job. This makes it both easy and tough at the same time. At Agrati we accept downtime of our machines to ensure that people contribute to improvements. In more difficult cases we have learned to organize ourselves to it to minimize the production impact to allow investments in better performance.”
“To be honest we did all the hard work before, because a platform, in my opinion, is simply something that amplifies what you already have. That is why we did a lot during the years that preceded the implementation to ensure our people learned how to give constructive feedback. We trained them actively to see waste and which kind of waste it is. I dare to say that when people started joining the online innovation community, they were already constructive. The tone was set, and the result is a bigger constructive community. When the community is already collaborative, you become collaborative. The opposite is unfortunately also true, so you really have to consider this properly before you start. ”
What we didn’t mention yet is that we often hear that companies have challenges to involve their blue-collar workers in the improvement process. Agrati Group stands out because there is greater engagement observed among machine operators compared to those working behind a computer. To be clear, that is a good thing. But why do you think that’s the case? “It sure is a good thing and the reason is also very simple. It is because we focused to involve the people in operations. We are convinced that the biggest improvements are currently within our operations, so we focus on the operations. This kind of activities is really driven by the operations, so the focus has been to make it work for the people driving these operations, just a matter of thought-out priorities.”
Consequently, we observe a substantial volume of ideas being submitted. How do you ensure the realisation of these ideas and how do you ensure that this happens in a timely manner? “Well, we have our Lean Team that has the responsibility to ensure that the process is followed, and that the momentum is kept as much as possible. This is not always possible; some ideas take more time.”
So the Lean Team is the central steering team, do they also decide on the implementation of the ideas? “Well, most often it will be a line manager of the person who submitted the idea and in case it goes beyond the competence level of the responsible, the topic owner is consulted. Middle management has full authority on deciding whether an idea will be implemented or not. In unique cases we have ideas that require more thought and that’s where the magic happens.”
It requires time and effort
Matteo makes it all sound so easy 😅 So I wonder if there have been or are any challenges he encountered? “The biggest challenge is always the point where the company becomes the bottle-neck. But as long as this is the situation, it’s a good challenge. It means that people are still finding ways to do things better and more importantly that they are sharing their thoughts and feedback with us. If an idea is a good idea we will find resources for it. Since improvements are part of the daily job we look into possibilities to give people enough autonomy, but unfortunately that is not always possible. The equipment driven business we are in and the type of equipment we work with requires certain skills and certification. But I repeat, that is a luxury position to be in. “
I do remember that in the beginning we had a discussion on how transparent the configuration actually was. There was some fear and yet I hear that eventually this is a big – if not the biggest – advantage of having a collaborative improvement platform in place. Why the change of heart? Matteo replies with a big smile “True, we were not sure how people would react, but again, we did the hard work before and invested time in training and still do this to ensure people embrace our continuous improvement culture.”
You do spend some time on ensuring that every idea gets a fair chance from the beginning, which is commendable. “That’s correct. We want to give every idea its best chance and the only way to do this is to guarantee that ideas are well described and that we have all the information. Sometimes people do this by themselves, but often we go to the floor and talk to the people to explain their idea.”
Achievements go beyond the number of ideas
We have been talking for quite some time and I am sure that people are eager to know what the value of your initiative is. Would you be able to share some concrete examples of achievements? “Well, I will have to disappoint a bit, because not all ideas can be evaluated in direct numbers. Most often for us they will result in performance improvements. “
“Every year, out of all the ideas there is at least one idea that pays for all the other ideas, and I believe that to find that one idea that saves real money you have to give something before. It’s a snowball effect, you empower people to make a change, you actually make the change and more ideas come until eventually you find that one idea that really pays off.”
I must really have a bad pokerface as Matteo quickly adds that they did find one idea that really pays off this year. “This year we received an idea that will save us 200K on energy consumption, it’s not something new, just something we didn’t do everywhere yet. It surfaced thanks to our improvement process and luckily in time given the current energy crisis.”
We received an idea to save 200K on energy consumption this year through our improvement process, just in time for the current energy crisis we are facing.
Recognition is another crucial element in creating a successful Collaborative Improvement community. Recognition doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to hand out money. “No, I agree. We do a variety of things, but we avoid giving a cash reward to anybody who submits a valuable idea. We have actually tried that in the past and it caused a form of negative competition and discussion. It is also creating a wrong motivation, it can cause people to share ideas for the wrong reason (for the money and not for the value it delivers).That is why we decided to do it differently.”
“First we have a “local” award competition where we allow every plant to submit up to 10 projects that they have successfully completed and where they are proud of. The committee – consisting of C-level people – evaluates the projects and hands out different awards. We really want to reward an entire team for their efforts and turn this into a social event. This is a way for us to close the gap between the top management and the people in operations.”
“Another thing we do is a pure statistical – and thus more individual – recognition. We will look into the top promotors (e.g. the top 3 people sharing the most ideas). We do this to boost engagement. Then again, we invest in an inspiring social event, for example last time Agrati paid for a trip to visit Maserati”.
Who wouldn’t want that as a reward? 🤩 “Yes, it is really motivating people in a good way, we really want that people are happy to work for Agrati. That is why we really want to stimulate team building which leads me to the final initiative. We will also look into the best department (this means the most ideas per head). In this case the company will pay for a team event. We believe that this one is essential to get people on board who are not yet. “
Agrati celebrates their innovators through a local reward for completed projects and inspiring social events for the best teams/departments, finding it to be the best way to motivate others to join and share their improvements.
Talking about recognition, a while back you yourself received an innovation award for the improvement approach you introduced at Agrati. Can you tell us a bit about this award and why they decided to give it to you? Why is your approach innovative? “This is a difficult question for me. The Lean Manufacturing Team has been awarded by ALES the European Lean Managers Society. This is a non-profit organization groups Lean Managers around Europe and they always try to promote the lean manufacturing approach. I am always motivating my team to learn how they can share what they are doing and teach best practices to others. This year we were confident that our improvement program had reached a big level of maturity and we decided to share our insights. Apparently they thought it was indeed mature enough as well as very innovative and we received the “Distinction award Innovation” from the European Lean Managers Society. It is innovative because it’s not new, but we are making the basics work in a new context.”
Some fruitful advice
We are coming to the end of this interview. If you could give one advice to companies who want to involve their employees in their improvement process, what would you tell them. “Simple, start with the basics”
“Because of this mindset I am sometimes perceived as somebody who doesn’t like digitalization, but that’s not true. I am against digitalization at all costs without thinking it through. Go and talk to the people and leave it, think about what they need and not what you need and make sure that improvements become a habit, a way of working, because that is the only sustainable way.”
“To achieve the fruit you want, your attention should be on getting the ground ready, not modifying the fruit.”
Many people would reply to you that it’s not that easy, difficult even. “Yes, of course it is difficult, but is it difficult enough to give up? It is just a matter of how much you believe in it, rather than how difficult it is. You want people to be an entrepreneur, that’s good. But do you allow them to BE an entrepreneur? It’s like trying to grow both grass and tomatoes on the same soil. One might grow, the other won’t. To achieve the fruit you want, your attention should be on getting the ground ready, not modifying the fruit.”