How to Deploy a Successful Improvement Program

Think the $30 million APL Logistics has saved through continuous improvement initiatives is unusual? Think again. According to the company’s foremost Lean/Six Sigma/JDI professional, with the right resources and level of commitment, many companies can make these disciplines work equally well. Here, the company offers hints to help your organization deploy a successful improvement program—and shares candid advice about which options worked best for its own.

Choose One Quality Discipline To Start With—And Focus On It First

When launching an improvement initiative, it’s essential to be focused about the quality discipline you’ll roll out first—because even though there are numerous viable options, it’s nearly impossible to deploy them all successfully at once.

Your choices include:

  • Lean
  • Six Sigma
  • JDI

APL Logistics’ first discipline of choice was Lean. Like Six Sigma, it’s highly quantitative. However, Lean’s project timelines are shorter and its learning curve less steep. Ultimately this made it a better choice for getting operations trained, doing projects and generating positive results almost immediately.

Choose And Deploy Your Preferred Training Model

Two of the most popular models include:

  • Cultivating a small group of in-house experts whose acquaintance with your discipline of choice allows them to closely manage and lead every improvement project
  • A grassroots approach that provides formal quality training for as many employees as possible and then relies on those employees to serve as project champions and trainers to other employees throughout the organization.

Both approaches can work. However APL Logistics elected to take the second, more viral route because it enabled more company employees to receive training and begin working on projects sooner. It also created a larger universe of qualified improvement advocates.

Select The Members Of Your Project Teams

Avoid the temptation to stack every team with senior managers and longtime executives. Instead take an egalitarian approach that gives equal consideration to individuals such as:

  • Truck drivers
  • Pick-and-pack specialists
  • Forklift operators
  • Customer service representatives
  • Shift supervisors

It’s often these employees who wind up being the most valuable contributors, because they’re the most acquainted with the day-to-day particulars of a process and therefore the most in tune with how it can be improved.

Choose Your First Projects

Skepticism is a common hurdle in almost every quality program’s infancy. There’s no better way to silence it than by encouraging your teams to start with easy projects that can deliver tangible results right out of the gate.

That’s the tack APL Logistics’ program took during Year One of its continuous improvement initiative, when projects like the following were common:

  • Changing out when incoming pallets were inspected
  • Shifting the location of a facility’s labor printer
  • Launching a packaging recycling initiative

The savings on these simple projects weren’t huge, especially when compared to the more complex projects that the company’s teams handle now. However they remain some of the most significant, because they were the ones that provided the tangible proof of concept people needed to see early on.

Continuously Improve Your Odds Of Program Success

Once your first improvement projects have begun generating results, it would be easy to assume that the hardest part of the journey is complete. But in reality, the work’s just begun, because the possibility of hitting a future plateau is very real.

To ensure your program enjoys sustained momentum, you must constantly be on the lookout for ways like the following to keep things fresh and interesting:

  • Adding new disciplines
  • Helping teams exchange project details and ideas via web portal programs
  • Adding financial incentives
  • Expanding training options

APL Logistics provides international, integrated supply chain services and innovative IT in 75 countries. It’s a unit of Singapore-based Neptune Orient Lines (NOL), a global cargo transportation and logistics company. For more tips about continuous improvement or other supply chain efficiencies, contact the company at

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