Podcast Masterminds in Maintenance

Episode 20: How to Use Continuous Improvement to Generate a 10x ROI with Calvin Williams

Ryan Chan

This week, we welcome Calvin Williams to the show to discuss how Continuous Improvement starts at the shop floor. Curious about Continuous Improvement Software — what is it and who it’s for? Do you wonder when you need it and what challenges should you prepare for? Listen today!

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00:06 Ryan Chan: Welcome to Masterminds in Maintenance, a podcast for those with new ideas in maintenance. I’m your host, Ryan. I’m the CEO and founder of UpKeep. Each week, I’ll be meeting with a guest who’s had an idea for how to shake things up in the maintenance and reliability industry. Sometimes the idea failed, sometimes it made their business more successful, and other times their idea revolutionized an entire industry. I’m super excited. Today, I have here with me, the founder and CEO of Impruver Technologies INC, Calvin Williams, as today’s guest on our show. Calvin, you’re a 20-year Continuous Improvement Operations professional, who’s led many, many initiatives to help save and create billions of growth opportunities for powerhouse manufacturing companies, some of the likes of Nestlé, Tyson, Mars and also the the military-industrial base. I also know, more recently, Clorox, as their Senior Manager of Global Continuous Improvement. Welcome, Calvin, to the show.

01:02 Calvin Williams: Thank you so much, Ryan. So glad to be with you today.

01:05 RC: Alright, well that was quite a handful, all the different accomplishments that you’ve had within this industry, within the space. You wanna start us off by telling us a little bit about yourself, your background and how you came to all of these different opportunities, which led you to starting your own company?

01:22 CW: Well, I think you covered it really well, Ryan. I would say perhaps I got a little bit of a short attention span, but I don’t know, maybe that… Maybe that helps me out in continuous improvement, right? Always looking for continuously getting better, progressing in my own career, really taking on, getting inside these great companies have been sort of a blessing for me and then getting some great assignments and doing my best to hit those out of the park and continuously looking forward to the next opportunity. But I kinda started off as a traditional IE in the plants coming out of college, industrial engineer, with Tyson and then was looking for more, some, looking to get more into continuous improvement, took a position with Nestlé for a few years as their industrial performance engineer. With that experience, I got to see some really good change-over, reduction projects and things like that but wanted to manage people, so took a position with Colgate leading production teams. And then just took off from there, bouncing between continuous improvement and operations leadership, and a stint in management consulting as well, which gave me some exposure to a variety of different manufacturing environments, so… That’s sorta how the story unfolded and yeah, just happy to be here with you today, taking it one step at a time.

02:43 RC: Alright.

02:44 CW: Yeah.

02:45 RC: And I’m curious, what led you to starting Impruver and your own company after all of these different experiences working in manufacturing?

02:54 CW: Oh man, somebody asked me, when did I start improving? My answer just right off the top of the head was, “I’ve been doing this since I was born.” [chuckle] That’s what it feels like to me anyway. But yeah, getting such a diverse point of view into so many different manufacturing environments, you start to see a common thread. They all wanna do more with less, they all wanna get better. They all wanna improve continuously, but in their efforts to do so, they don’t always succeed at it. So started to notice sort of a common theme of issues that companies run into in their quest to get better. Really the big three are insufficient tools and information, those transactions, those communications as you’re trying to drive improvement, tend to break down or get missed and that leads to decline.

03:46 CW: Second biggest thing is lack of support and engagement. Even the most well meaning leaders wanna see better results, wanna see CI thrive and really grow in their businesses, but a lot of time, they just don’t know their role in making that come to fruition. Often times what you see is, they hire a job title, continuous improvement job title and sort of look at that as… “Hey, I got the guy hired. I’m done.” Right? They kinda just back away, and let say, “Hey how can I help?” But really CI… It’s not really a job title, it’s a way of doing business and I think that gets missed a lot of time. So that’s the second biggest thing. I think the third biggest thing is around to that point of bringing in an expert and saying that expert’s gonna do it or not bringing an expert and saying, “we’re gonna do it.” What tends to happen is the skill set, the capability to solve problems and kinda see the next challenge and figure out how to overcome the next challenge. That skill set doesn’t disseminate broadly throughout the organization, right?

04:50 CW: It either stays concentrated in a functional, in an individual, and the folks with their hands on the work every day tend not to really build that capability so that they can see and solve problems for themselves. And that happens up and down the chain of command for operations and even support functions as well. So, those are some common things I saw, and I said, “You know, a lot of this stuff can really be helped by technology, so, and that sort of led me down the path to say, “Let me bank the metrics tracking, the project management, the strategy deployment.” Some of these core things in every CI project, every CI initiative, let me bank some of these core things into a software package. And if I was me 10-15 years ago, as a plant IE, if I would have had this thing in my hands or an operations leader, if I would’ve had this, I’d be… Been a lot happier off and working a lot less hours to get my job done. So… [chuckle] Yeah.

05:46 RC: Alright, well it sounds like such a great journey, Calvin, of seeing a problem, first hand, and then… Basically creating the solution for yourself, 10 years ago. You’ve had a ton of different experiences across many, many different companies too, some big, some massive, and some a little bit smaller. I’m curious, Calvin, when you look back at some of the continuous improvement projects that you worked on, is there one that stands out to you as the most memorable, the most impactful?

06:16 CW: My first CI project was the one that I found to be most exhilarating ’cause up to that point, it was all theory, it all sounded good. I’d read the books, I’d listened to the experts, I’d watched the videos, but I hadn’t done it, I hadn’t seen it come to fruition at that point. My first project, I was working at Nestlé actually and a corporate team came in and said, “Hey we’re trying to reduce changeovers across the network because we’ve identified that as the biggest opportunity for us.” I was in the industrial performance role, I went over to my manager and the plant manager and said, “Hey I think this is a good idea. Why don’t I go ahead and lead a changeover project for the plant?” And their response was, “Sure, but don’t let it interfere with your day job. You can do that but on magic time, do it on magic time. Not on our time.”

07:11 CW: That gives you a glimpse into what the culture was back then, but so we got into it. I put a team together, we started meeting weekly and every week, in between meetings, we would say, “Hey we’re gonna change A, B, and C, and then see what the result is for the subsequent changeover times.” And by the end of, I think, 12 or 13 weeks, we had cut changeover time by about 40%, we would get visitors after that, and this initiative that started off as do it on magic time became the crown jewel for the plant. And that it ended up kicking off the plant’s full buy-in. We’re jumping in head first in the continuous improvement. And then it just started going broad and wide after that. And I ended up winning second place in Nestlé’s USA’s Continuous Excellence Program that year for that project, too so.

08:01 RC: That’s huge as your very first project, wow.

08:04 CW: Very first project, yeah, yeah.

08:06 RC: That’s amazing. That’s so, so amazing to hear, Calvin, that early signs of success. One thing that I wanted to bring up is I’m sure that that question around magic time is a common theme across many organizations. Any tips, tricks, advice for folks that wanna drive continuous improvement projects at their plant at their facility, but aren’t necessarily given the time and resources to be able to really do it?

08:36 CW: Yeah, now, that’s a tough one because there’s a broader cultural challenge to doing continuous improvement. Continuous improvement isn’t free, right? Although sometimes we’re led to believe so, it’s all good, it’s all free, it’s all greatness. But the reality is, it’s an investment, and you may or may not get an ROI on that investment in the time frame you’re looking for. So for someone like me who, in the role I was in, I was in the engineering role, so I was a support resource already, and I didn’t… I was salaried so I could just kind of work the extra hours a couple of hours a week, to organize things and work with the production teams to make some good stuff happen. And that started the early buy-in, we tracked the results, we said, “Here’s where we were before, here’s where we are now, we’re trending in the right direction, this is how it’s affecting the bottom line for the plant.” And that helped me to generate some momentum.

09:36 CW: Now, the reality is that a plant should probably say, “You know, we have our operating budget, here’s how much we need to spend in order to sustain normal operations, here’s how much we need to spend in order to satisfy current customer needs. Here’s our continuous improvement budget that’s extraneous to that budget. We wanna go very fast, so we’re gonna commit a sizable amount of money toward continuous improvement. And that money should pay for team to be meeting on a regular basis, perhaps, on overtime. Maybe you’re gonna hire outside resources to close out action items that are out there, maybe you’re gonna buy new equipment, maybe you’re gonna really enhance your maintenance and repairs functions activities. So yeah, continuous improvement costs money, it’s gonna cost before it benefits you. And then over time, as you make those improvements as you engage your workforce further and further, you make the financial commitment, you make the resource commitment, over time, you should start to see a pretty significant year-over-year return on that investment. I look for a 10:1 ROI easily, if you really go at it and do it right.

10:46 RC: That’s awesome.

10:47 CW: Yes.

10:48 RC: I’m also curious. For the companies that you work with, how do you roughly… How would you gauge how much budget to put towards continuous improvement?

11:01 CW: Well, it really depends on how aggressive the company wants to be. So, if you’re a company that is on a burning platform, and you don’t have a lot of time, you need to make a lot of changes, I would look to invest a pretty significant chunk maybe as much as 5% to 10% even of your operating budget to say, “Hey, for each individual in this company, 10% of their time is gonna go toward driving improvements to their area of responsibility,” If you’re at a more pace level, I’m working with a company right now, they’ve said, “Hey, what we’re gonna do is we’re just gonna keep three CI teams going at all times. When one team finishes, we’re gonna basically replace it with a new team and have them focus on the next most at-risk area for their company strategy.” That’s one of the things I like to do is tie company strategy, what’s most at risk and then launch Kaizen or launch continuous improvement projects against those, that way you stay connected. That’s where the tactical CI work stays connected to the broader company strategy.

12:04 CW: But, yeah, you can kinda set a flat [12:06] ____ min and max of three teams at all times, and essentially the way those teams work is they meet on a weekly cadence. This is the Impruver approach. They meet on a weekly cadence and they… It’s almost like an Agile project. Hey, we got seven days, we got so much horsepower sitting around the table. What can we accomplish in the next week? Let’s do that when we meet the following week, here’s what we learned, here’s what we’re gonna do next. And you just keep going until you hit your target, your target condition. So yeah, I mean you could decide we’re just gonna have one team going at all times, you can decide we’re gonna have every major area in the plant continuously improving on our ongoing CI project, so well, you set targets and due dates, and you just can continue to work against those.

12:50 RC: So where do you typically see continuous improvement relative to maintenance and reliability? Because I can imagine that continuous improvement spans the entire organization and not just the maintenance and reliability department. I’m curious where you see that as well.

13:08 CW: The overlap?

13:09 RC: Yeah.

13:09 CW: So that’s a great question, here’s the way I see it, right? I don’t know if you’re familiar with TPM, Total Productive Maintenance, TPM is an incredible program, right? It’s heavy though, right? It takes a large, a significant commitment of a company to go down that track, and it’s a little bit prescriptive as well, but the end all objective of TPM is to achieve and sustain what I call a base condition or peak operating conditions, in which case when you turn the machine on, it jumps up to 100% in as little time as possible, it stays at 100% of what it’s capable of doing, until you’re done, whether you turn it down and you don’t have any more demand for that equipment. So ideally, continuous improvement and reliability or at least a major subset of continuous improvement is looking to achieve and sustain base condition, and so is reliability for the most part, right?

14:06 CW: So yeah, continuous improvement is twofold, though on one hand, it’s, let’s be as efficient as possible with the resources you have, on the other hand, it’s let’s make sure we’re moving in the direction that the market is moving and staying connected with the customer. So I think that’s the overlap, but sort of the more market-driven pieces is probably the big differentiator.

14:26 RC: So I guess I’m also curious, too, for continuous improvement, do you see this as a completely separate department or is this like a ideology, is this something… A culture that’s bred within every single department, every single person?

14:43 CW: I think if you’re really going, going with it, it’s every person, every department, every day. I think that’s what you’re ultimately trying to get to and it starts with the top, right? I just, I got a plan I’m working with now, right? And one of the leaders, executives, comes to me and says, “Hey, why don’t you do a CI training for my people, the folks on the shop floor,” right? And I’m happy to do that, done it before, many times, but the thing is when… You can’t necessarily delegate the CI mindset and the understanding of continuous improvement to a support person or an outside person, really, right? It has to be a fundamental way of doing business and it has to be led by the leader, it has to be just the mindset of the leader to be CI-minded, expect that of all of their direct reports and then it cascades down throughout the organization. So yeah, it’s more of a way of doing business, but the thing is when you sort of say, “Hey, just train my people and let them go do things”, couple of problems are gonna happen, right?

16:00 CW: A couple of conflicts occur. The main one being, it’s almost like that leaders expecting their people to take initiative, and start improving things on their own and then when that happens, the leader’s like, “I don’t understand what you did and I want you to undo it.” [chuckle]

16:15 RC: Yeah.

16:17 CW: I want you to go back to the way I like it. [chuckle] So yeah, people don’t tend to do what they learned in a training class, they tend to do what their leaders expect them to do. So, it really has to cascade down from throughout the natural chain of command for the organization.

16:34 RC: This might be a leading question that builds upon what you’re just saying, but I’m curious, of all the companies that you’ve worked with, of all the companies that you’ve worked at as well, which ones have implemented this ideology of continuous improvement the best and what made them so incredibly successful and different than all the rest?

16:55 CW: Oh, boy, that is a tough question. I’ve worked for some companies that I would consider hard companies and I’ve worked with some soft companies that also, it’s usually spotty, right? Some companies are like, “We are extremely cost-sensitive and we’re gonna drive to the bottom cost as well as we can”, right? And, in every conversation, every day, every metric, there’s a cost element and they’re driving hard against that, right? Some companies are like, “Hey, we are a extremely sensitive quality company we’ve had some dings in the past and we’re not gonna have that again.” And they drive hard for quality, it’s even hard to do a cost savings project, because it’s gonna affect quality, we can’t do it, right? So in that sense, there is a CI culture there. What’s typically missing is the connection with, as a company, overall, what are we trying to accomplish, what’s gonna bring the most value to the customer, let’s focus on the critical few and then let’s deploy our limited CI resources. Remember, I said you gotta set a budget for CI, that’s a limited budget, let’s deploy those limited resources toward that. The company I’m working with, most recently with Impruver is probably the best overall system I’ve seen though.

18:14 RC: Wow!

18:14 CW: This is a company called World Technology Ingredients, WTI. We just released a case study on them, first thing this year, they’ve got a kind of a quarterly strategic leadership meeting that they talk strategy and how’s everybody doing, the executives? They have some at-risk areas that flow into a monthly steering team committee that says, “Alright, here’s the at-risk areas, let’s assign some CI projects against these, let’s get an update from our current CI leaders how things are going.” They are also working towards certifications, so there’s a kind of a three-tier certification model, lowest level is Impruver level where you got individuals driving projects with teams. Second level up, it’s like a coaching level where you got coaches coaching the Impruver level, and then level two coaches is more for the executive level to coach the coaches who are coaching the project leaders.

19:10 CW: So, and they got a pretty much an ongoing model of, we got two main production areas. There will always be projects going in those areas to increase throughput, or cut costs or whatever the priority is for, and then they break that down further into if it’s increasing throughput, what’s the number one thing hindering throughput right now, this is what the team is focused on, we’re gonna go on a week-to-week cadence to figure out what we could be doing between meetings to drive improvement, and then the executives actually go out and do Gemba Walks and during those Gemba Walks, they’re having the conversation of, what did you do today to drive improvement, how did it go? So it gets down to a daily level where leadership is engaging with the shop floor to really check in on the progress of those projects and just make sure they’re closing the gap, so…

20:01 RC: That’s awesome. So what I hear is like it becomes part of the daily culture, it’s not just a once a week or once a month type of thing, it’s every single day. And what I’m also hearing is that, it came top down, it started from the top and it’s the top training the next layer who trains the next layer, who trains the next layer.

20:23 CW: That’s right. You know the tricky thing about it was, there’s three layers, right? The Impruver level, coach one level, level one coach and level two coach. In order to become a level two coach, you first gotta become an Impruver level. So, the executives have to lead projects first and then sort of work their way up the pyramid and then they bring their people up the pyramid as well, after them, so…

20:46 RC: Absolutely. I’m curious, Calvin, when you look at some of the other companies out there and folks that you’ve worked with in the past, where do you see most companies not… What do you see most companies not doing enough of with regards to continuous improvement?

21:01 CW: I would say the companies that are trying just don’t prioritize very well, right? It’s almost like fix what we can, kind of approach, instead of a, let’s improve what we need to improve, right? Let’s look at what our priorities are at business, the critical few and let’s figure out how to improve those areas. So typically, CI functions just walk the floor and see a problem and say, “Oh, yeah, I think we can fix that. Let’s work on that.” Often time, you end up spending a lot of resources, again, limited resources available, and by the end of a year, two-year, three-year, you really haven’t moved the important needles in any significant way. That’s if you’re getting any progress at all. So I think that the prioritization is where the gap is, to a large extent. Let’s figure out what’s most important, and then let’s allocate resources against that, those critical few.

22:00 RC: Absolutely, absolutely. So, obviously, Calvin, you started a company, a software company called Impruver, where does continuous improvement software sit with regards to all the other different technologies and things that we have to do on a daily basis within a manufacturing or within a plant?

22:20 CW: So the way Impruver’s designed, it’s designed for folks from the shop floor up to really executive level, CEO level even, and we focus more on the small and mid-sized manufacturing market, CPG specifically, really with a small investment of time, just a few minutes a day, you can just go in the system, see what actions you need to complete, input any data if necessary, respond to messages and things like that. And essentially, the software, if you think about the way businesses typically run, manufacturing, manufacturing factories typically run, most companies do some type of strategy deployment, for example, but you’ll probably see it plastered on 100 different spreadsheets, if you got a bunch of different factories or you’ll see it in some complex PowerPoint deck and Word document or something that often gets kinda folded up and tucked away as soon as the strategy conversation’s over, right? [chuckle]

23:23 CW: When you say, “Hey, let me check out your root cause analysis stuff”, right? You see PowerPoint decks and Excel spreadsheets and white board, pictures, pictures of… I’ve seen pictures of people taking a white board RCAs tucked away somewhere on the file that no one can access, talk about project management, people use Excel spreadsheets or some other document, Word document or PowerPoint or just meetings with scraps of paper to track what needs to get done. You know, one-point lessons, training documents, things like that. So if you think about all these things that are essentially fundamental to any CI project or CI effort, they’re all kind of scattered out and none of these tools talk to each other and they don’t talk to the organization, right? At large. So, what Impruver’s done, is said, “Hey let’s seamlessly integrate all these things, so they’re now talking to each other, they’re talking to you, those communications don’t get missed.”

24:20 CW: The software is reminding you that, “Hey, you got a couple of things on your list to do. Make sure they get done.” So the initiative moves forward, it’s got the strategy thing in there, so you know what’s most important for the company. You can see all the way up to the CEO and all the way down to the shop floor what everybody’s working on, how they’re progressing against what they’re working on, it’s tracking metrics in real time to say, “Hey, you’re 50% of the way there in terms of time, but you’re only 30% of the way there in terms of progress. You were supposed to get to 100 units a minute, but you’re still at 50 units a minute”, so it’s saying, “Hey, you don’t have a lot of time left, but you still got a lot of progress to make to close your gap, your gap, specifically.” So, it’s really scaling continuous improvement down to the individual level, as opposed to a plant or enterprise-wide where nobody is truly responsible for the result, it’s more so at the individual level where every individual knows what they are on the hook to accomplish.

25:21 RC: Is there something that you wish more people knew about continuous improvement in the industry that you’re in?

25:29 CW: Honestly, I wish more people knew it’s not that hard. [chuckle] I know my previous explanation didn’t make it seem that easy and simple, but it’s not that hard really, right? A lot of times we tend to focus on all the tools and we over-complicate it. We add all these terms, these Japanese terms in America and other places too, I guess, that are confusing and people don’t understand, it’s not natural to people, in America anyway and… Many other places of the world, I assume it’s the same. And it’s just, I think it’s a little over-complicated and I can speculate on why it got that way but the fact of the matter is improving something is not that hard to do. In fact, the person doing the job everyday is probably in the best position to drive improvement for that process. And we tend to wanna bring in these complex calculations and tools and methodologies, and books and experts and all this other stuff but what people really need is a challenge.

26:32 RC: Yeah.

26:32 CW: You know? It’s just challenge the person and you’ll be surprised at the level of ingenuity that everyday people working on the plant floor can generate to solve the problems that lie before them. So…

26:45 RC: I love it. Yeah, I completely agree with that. Continuous improvement is not this crazy, difficult ideology. It really is just a culture shift and it’s better to start today than to hold off and understand all the different terms, methodologies…

27:05 CW: Yeah.

27:05 RC: It really is that simple to get started and be better than you were yesterday. That’s my whole thought.

27:11 CW: Okay, cool. Let’s issue a challenge, “Hey, your line is putting out 100 pieces a minute. Let me see if you can get to 120.”

27:17 RC: People love that.

27:19 CW: Yeah, people appreciate that. Like, “Okay. Yeah, let me try. Let me give it a shot.” Of course, some will struggle with that and some will have ideas right away. Like, “Well I kinda need you, my boss, to give me this and then I’ll be there.” So and that’s the right conversation to have though, if that’s what’s needed.

27:35 RC: Awesome. Calvin, where do you go to continue learning and where do you go for new ideas?

27:40 CW: The ultimate learning experiences for me come from the Gemba. Just working with different factories, getting to see how different companies operate. A lot of them have really good processes and practices in place that I can say, “Wow, that’s really neat. I know some other companies that are really struggling with that.” And just experimenting with them and oftentime, they’re designing the experiments. I’m just sort of creating the structure for that experimentation to happen and still protect the daily operations of the business. But a lot of time, they’re coming up with the experiments. They’re saying, “Oh man, this worked great.” “This didn’t work great.” “Let’s try this next time.” I think those kinda things really give me fuel to kinda work toward the next thing, next big thing for myself.

28:29 RC: Okay.

28:31 CW: I think that’s the ultimate.

28:32 RC: Alright, well Calvin, how can our listeners continue following you on your journey and all of the great success that you have?

28:43 CW: Well, I’m pretty active on LinkedIn. I think probably that’s the best way and we got a YouTube channel, Impruver Technologies on YouTube. That’s probably the best way to do it. We’re also, obviously email is a good way, [email protected] And yeah that’s probably how you do it and yeah, I’m happy to hear from anybody who has interest in Impruver and learning more about it. It’s my favorite story to tell.

29:11 RC: I love it. Well thanks so much, Calvin, for joining us. I definitely learned a ton about continuous improvement, myself. Thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in to today’s Masterminds in Maintenance. My name is Ryan, I’m the CEO and founder of UpKeep. You can also connect with me. I’m pretty active on LinkedIn as well. You can also email me directly at [email protected] Until next time. Thanks again, Calvin.

29:34 CW: Thank you.

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