Continuous Improvement programmes. They rack up an attrition rate that makes an SAS selection process seem like a stroll in the park. A daunting 85% of initiatives fail to sustain improvements in the long run, WM’s Manufacturing Conference (WMMC) - geared around achieving CI excellence- heard, last month.

WMMC kicked off with an all too familiar tale. Change programme launches to great fanfare, gathers early momentum then kaboom- plummets back down to earth faster than Felix Baumgartner in his Red Bull suit.

“This graph is an op ex maturity scale,” said Ross McCombe, operations director at the Shingo Prize- winning Newsprinters, Eurocentral site. “It’s reflective of what we’ve all been through. We get the pickup, people start to get on board with ideas. But, eventually we go over the top of the hill, an initiative peters out and then we get disillusion.”

The textbook responses vary: call in a new consultant or swot up on the latest lean guidebooks. All variations on the same misguided theme said McCombe. “90% of programmes fail because of the systems supporting them. We have built failure into our systems, if we only look at tools.”

McCombe advocated embedding deep rooted principles -like trust, honesty and commitment -instead. “For us a principle based approach will take you to a culture of consistent continuous improvement: people doing CI because they want to do it rather than because they’re being made to.”

The doctrine will be discomforting for an industry more familiar with hard skills than soft. McCombe added: “Extrinsic motivators (money, fear) deliver results in the short term but it never lasts. We must look instead to harness intrinsic motivation: doing something because we enjoy it. That takes autonomy, knowing the purpose of the work and mastery.”

What was derided as ‘soft and fluffy’ was actually steeped in science, McCombe stressed. Swedish research ( showed a decline in blood donors once the service became paid-for rather than a goodwill gesture.

The appliance of science continued with WMMC’s second speaker Bill Tiplady, principle practitioner at the Manufacturing Institute. Tiplady urged delegates to adopt a little exercise physiology in their CI activity. “Hitting the wall is a cycling term,” he said. “It’s a complete collapse of the mind, body and soul. Do your CI initiatives feel like that? Going into work, collapsing and thinking why is the 5S not working?

Just like a Tour De France team- site managers should be on the lookout for warning signs of an impending wall and then working out a way around it next time. Tiplady said: “Think about what you will do differently next time? When things go wrong, average managers look out the window and blame the people in the factory. Great leaders look in the mirror and reflect: ‘how did I let this happen? Why?”

That team spirit made good in the story of the day’s third presentation. BAE Systems, Samlesbury. turned wholeheartedly to its people when faced with daunting project to quadruple production of F35 Lightning jets and halve the costs.

Jon Evans, head of F35 operations, said: “We knew nearly 90% of change programmes failed so as leaders we set about finding out the reasons why? And what set the other 10% apart?”

A clear vision was one trait, said Evans. The other took a leap of faith for a site steeped in military history, he revealed: “We are an engineering company working with the military so guess what? We’re very much command and control mode. It’s very difficult for us to start asking people what they think and involving them.”

But the BAE management team pushed on. Operators were placed at the vanguard of a new assembly system based on intensive workplace organisation and working to a takt. Hierarchies made way for operators empowered to identify and counter measure constraints. Evans explained: “One guy had 370 hours for his week’s work and identified 145 hours of improvement. No disrespect to any engineers in the room, but if I asked an engineer to find me 145 hours improvement they’d want a 12 month programme, PHD and a thesis.”

Another factory finding necessity to be the motherhood of invention was Scott Safety, Skelmersdale. Plant director, Pete Osborne revealed how the PPE-producing plant has been invigorated after facing a sink or swim moment to accommodate extra production and equipment from a mothballed sister site in Finland.

Osborne said: “People at today’s conference have spoken about 85% of change programmes failing but we didn’t have that option. We needed to half the production area and double the output.”

Scott Safety sought solutions from its employees at a series of “frank” feedback sessions in 2011 recalled Osborne. “The event was brutal. There were two key messages: you’re not visible as a management team. And when you do communicate it’s too complicated, it’s Six Sigma and regression analysis.”

Brutal, perhaps. But cathartic too. Four years on, the regression analysis has gone and in its place are at-a-glance red, yellow or green buttons on shopfloor status boards. Managers stand before them at daily team debriefs and the newfound collectivism has been instrumental in Skelmersdale achieving zero waste to landfill and one million hours without a lost time accident metrics.

The lesson was a fitting one on which to conclude WMMC. Osborne reflected: “You can have all the systems in the world but if you’ve not got the culture then it’s not going to work.”

WMMC will be re-launched as part of an all new and enhanced Manufacturing Management Conference next year. The Manufacturing Management super Conference on 15-16 June will offer insight on achieveing world-class safety and maintenance standards. See more at