Continuous improvement and the mini-company concept
Jan de Leede and Jan Kees Looise
University of Twente, The Netherlands
Keywords Continuous improvement, Teamwork, Organizational design, Case studies, Kaizen Abstract The key issue of continuous improvement (CI) seems to be the problem of combining extensive employee involvement with market orientation and continuation of CI. In this article we review some existing organisational designs for CI on these three essential characteristics of CI. As an alternative to the shortcomings of current organisational designs for CI we present the mini-company concept, related to the sociotechnical concept of the self-managing team. The minicompany concept incorporates the three key issues: it has a self-propelling capacity for CI, involving everyone on the shop floor. A constant and market-oriented source for improvement is found in the clients and suppliers of the mini-company. Results of an in-depth case-study are presented, showing some strong effects of the mini-company concept.
International Journal of Operations & Production Management, Vol. 19 No. 11, 1999, pp. 1188-1202. # MCB University Press, 0144-3577
Introduction Continuous improvement (CI) is viewed as vital in today's business environments. CI is one of the core strategies towards manufacturing excellence, as it appears, for example, within the context of ``world-class manufacturing'' (Schonberger, 1986; Schonberger, 1996) or ``total quality management'' (Hackman and Wageman, 1995). Furthermore, CI as a concept is nothing difficult to understand or new. Bessant and Caffyn (1997) define the concept as an organisation-wide `` process of focused and sustained incremental innovation Many tools and ''. techniques are developed to support these processes of incremental innovation. However, the difficulty lies within the consistent application of the CI-philosophy and the CI-tools and -techniques. As an organisation-wide process, CI requires the efforts of employees on all levels. Here, the CI-approach can be linked with long established traditions of employee involvement and employee participation. This line of research showed that the involvement of employees is not just a matter of the application of tools and techniques alone (among many others: Cotton (1993)). Other organisational elements such as organisational frameworks, leadership and management styles, culture, employee needs, values and norms are needed as well. Only an integrated approach will lead to lasting results. The key problem of CI seems to be the issue of employee involvement (Bessant and Caffyn, 1997; Berger, 1997). How to involve the employees of all levels in the process of market-oriented continuous improvement? What motivational aspects have to be taken into account in making CI a lasting routine? It is our statement that existing organisational frameworks do not address this issue to a satisfying extent. In spite of the recognition of the ``people orientation'' of kaizen (Imai, 1986) and the ``broad participation'' and ``high involvement'' of CI (Bessant and Caffyn, 1997; Berger, 1997), CI still needs thorough elaboration on organisational designs in which these aspects are realised. Especially, the problem is how to direct the CI activities to customer
requirements and business strategy, while maintaining true employee involvement. In this article we want to contribute to this issue. We focus on the organisational aspects of employee involvement in CI. Therefore, the focus of this article is the shop floor. We present a concept that is derived from sociotechnical systems theory but is enriched by principles from Shop Floor Management (Suzaki, 1993). This concept is called ``the mini-company''. The most important characteristic of the mini-company concept is the integration of the customer in operations. An...