Continuous Improvement in the Context of Product Development Application of the PDCA Cycle in the Norwegian Automobile Supplier Industry
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The increasing challenges that companies must face to achieve a competitive position in the automotive supplier industry require that each company improve all functions within the company. This requirement impacts product development with regard to the speed at which companies develop and roll out new products to survive in a demanding market. Simultaneous fulfilment of customers’ expectations and requirements depends on the development of high quality products and the integration of desired functions. Thus, achieving high performance in new product development, including continuous improvement, will enable a company to turn the product development process into a strategic weapon for competition. The performance of CI is largely dependent on the willingness to work within the field of CI in a systematic way. The main objective of this PhD project was to build comprehensive knowledge of existing experiences with CI processes within the context of PD, followed by identification of an overall set of critical success factors for the application of the PDCA cycle as a CI method for the entire PD organization. To identify critical success factors it is essential to understand existing CI processes. This PhD projects ends with conclusion about which aspects to consider when transforming from the existing superficial application of a systematic CI method towards the PDCA cycle as an integral part of CI. To achieve the objectives, three major areas were covered. First, in order to gain insight and to develop knowledge of existing CI processes, an exploratory study was performed including the most of the companies within the automotive supplier industry in Norway. Second, a case study was performed to understand patterns involving variables within the existing approach to solving improvement issues compared with the existing CI method: the PDCA cycle. Third, in order to create knowledge of application of the PDCA cycle as a CI method, a real life improvement project was accomplished. Action research was applied to focus on solving real problems via collaboration between the organization and the researcher. Combining those studies together with accomplishment of the PDCA cycle in several improvement projects, it has been possible to see the application of the PDCA cycle in a more holistic view tailored for the PD environment in the automotive supplier industry. The initial study of the CI processes identified a strong customer focus, including an emphasis on delighting the customer by satisfying both defined and the unspoken wishes, as one of the main motivating forces of daily work in the PD environment within the Norwegian automotive supplier industry. In addition, this study supports a high level of autonomy in the workplace, as the people are competent to handle whatever challenges emerge, if they are motivated. Consequently, CI activities which did not facilitate delighting customers were not normally a self-driven activity. Another important finding was that people are told to go in one direction but often choose their own. This highlights the importance of seeing CI in connection with degree of rigidity and freedom to be able to succeed. Management commitment and leadership were also revealed as crucial factors to implementing and performing CI. Hence, this study reveals that CI still has untapped potential in the automotive supplier PD organization. More specifically, the focus on CI ought to be increased so that it can play a significant role in improving competitiveness and the ability to maintain satisfied customers. People working within PD emphasized that the PDCA cycle as a CI method is an impressively systematic approach for improvement, and that it is not always an approach that works well in what is perceived as a rapidly changing environment such as the automotive supplier industry. The trial and error approach was the predominant approach rather than the application of a systematic CI method, such as the PDCA cycle. The planning phase was underestimated and the doing phase was overestimated, resulting in the possibility of missing opportunities for fact-based decisions. Nevertheless, they strongly emphasized that they naturally, as engineers, carry out improvements every day. They highlighted the point that if they are to adopt the PDCA cycle as a CI method, it must fit in with their main driving force: the focus on delighting the customer with high quality technology solutions along with high speed. In connection with that, the following factors must be in place when considering the application of the PDCA cycle: Improvement issue to be analyzed is sufficiently complex No time constraints Sufficient resources available to spend on solving the improvement issues When skilled people working in a cross functional team applied the PDCA cycle as a CI method in selected improvement projects, the focus shifted to spending more time in the planning phase to collect facts and identifying the root causes before identification of countermeasures. This outcome depended on ensuring that they were headed in the right direction to be able to spend sufficient time on the planning step, since this was not a part of their natural way of working. Different degrees of success were obtained from execution of improvement projects through application of the PDCA cycle. The results revealed that skilled people working in cross-functional teams were able to achieve desired improvements inside the improvement team through fulfillment of the PDCA cycle, independent of the complexity of the improvement issue. However, taking improvements a bit further to achieve sustainable improvements across departments and teams required commitment from management at the PD level, as well as from affected managers outside the improvement projects. If the PDCA cycle is selected as a standardized CI method for the entire PD organization, the following main success factors were identified, in addition to crossfunctionality, which was already a common way of working: management commitment and leadership, knowledge of the PDCA cycle, understanding of when to apply the method, efficient performance, and internal marketing activities. To integrate the PDCA cycle as part of a system, it is essential to see the whole system. Hence, the PDCA cycle must fit in as an integral part of the overall CI process in addition to serving as a CI method. The following considerations must be addressed to achieve success with this aspect of the process: the PDCA cycle must be included into the strategy of the company, fit with their strong customer focus, and be acceptable to skilled people working in cross-functional teams who are resistant to rigid system and procedures. Those aspects must be taken together with the main success factors for application of the PDCA cycle as a CI method for the entire PD organization as described above. It is hoped that this research initiative will provide knowledge concerning the potential to enhance organizations’ ability to apply the PDCA cycle in the context of PD. Through successful accomplishment of improvement projects, companies will not only learn to stop avoiding problems, but will begin to recognize the process of solving improvement issues as a powerful opportunity for creating and capturing knowledge.